The government has stalled its latest effort to deport a group of Vietnamese asylum-seekers at the behest of the U.N. refugee agency, an official said on Sunday, after stating last month that the 16 Montagnards would soon be expelled to Vietnam.
“We had planned to send the 16 people to Vietnam, but the plan was suspended because the U.N. protested against our decision to not offer refugee status for those people,” said Houl Sarith, head of the refugee department’s application office for asylum-seekers at the Interior Ministry.
About 50 Montagnards have been housed in Pur Senchey district’s Choam Chao commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Three were granted asylum earlier this year.
Advocates have criticized UNHCR for cooperating with the government by facilitating the expulsion of Montagnards from Cambodia and back to Vietnam. Recent returnees claim to have been subjected to widespread surveillance after being repatriated. Last month, Mr. Sarith said the same 16 Montagnards—from a minority group who say they have faced persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—would be sent back to Vietnam after the government rejected their appeals for asylum.
He said on Sunday that his department was discussing the case with UNHCR, which has previously requested that the government explain why it has denied the majority of Montagnards’ asylum requests and granted only three, for two men and a child. Mr. Sarith declined to elaborate on the government’s suspension of its plan to deport the 16 or say when the group might eventually be repatriated.
“The refugee department doesn’t want to publish this information about sending the 16 people to Vietnam publicly because the U.N. is discussing with us on the case,” Mr. Sarith said.
Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional press officer, said in an email that the agency’s staff meet regularly with officials from the refugee department to discuss asylum cases. Regarding the 16 Montagnards, Ms. Tan said: “For this particular group of asylum-seekers whose cases have received negative decisions, we continue to offer to facilitate their voluntary return to Vietnam if they opt to return—as we have done with previous groups of Montagnards.”
Mr. Sarith of the refugee department said last month that officials did not intend to meet with UNHCR staff unless they had additional documents to justify that asylum appeals should be granted.
“We don’t have any reason to give more explanations to the U.N. because the evidence and the answers of those people are enough for us to drop them,” he said at the time.
Ms. Tan did not answer a question on Sunday about whether UNHCR had provided additional supporting documentation to the refugee department showing that the 16 individuals should be granted asylum.