UN High Commissioner for Refugees officers met Tuesday with several Western diplomats to discuss ways of dealing with the situation on the Cambodia-Vietnam border as UN staff began a refugee assessment in Mondolkiri province, diplomatic sources confirmed Wednesday.
An unknown number of Montagnards are reportedly hiding in that province’s remote jungles after fleeing unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Hill tribe members in the area claim these refugees are waiting for the assurance of safe passage before leaving their remote hideouts.
UNHCR representatives arrived in Mondolkiri province Tuesday and are expected to undertake a weeklong assessment before reporting on the situation.
But some in the diplomatic community here have said UNHCR was slow in addressing the needs of these people when it became apparent a month ago that hill tribe members from Vietnam had turned up on Cambodian soil.
“My concern is that UNHCR does its job,” one diplomatic source said Wednesday.
“It’s important for them to make on the ground assessments,” the source added.
Government Spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Wednesday the government will be pragmatic in balancing the protection of genuine “political” refugees from Vietnam with the government’s need to discourage a potential exodus from the Central Highlands.
“If they are really political refugees it is not a problem. But when you open the gates, it is difficult to stop,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he wants to avoid a refugee situation inside Cambodia’s borders at all costs.
It was suggested at Tuesday’s meeting that keeping refugees in Cambodia might be preferable to third-country resettlement in an attempt to prevent thousands of asylum seekers from coming to Cambodia.
“But that is probably not going to happen if [refugees arrive] in large numbers,” the diplomatic source said. “Hun Sen is already under a lot of pressure from Vietnam and with large numbers he is less likely to accept this.”
The diplomat also warned that keeping hill tribe members in Cambodia could pose a security risk, despite assurances from Phnom Penh of a safe asylum process for genuine refugees.
“It almost doesn’t matter what is happening in Phnom Penh. There are Vietnamese agents running all over the border provinces with the where-with-all and money to influence people, to force those people back [to Vietnam],” the diplomat said.
Another diplomatic source said Tuesday’s meeting marked the emergence of a loose policy of containment within Cambodia that didn’t previously exist, with countries like the US backing slightly away from earlier offers of resettlement.
The US Embassy said earlier this month that it was ready to consider for resettlement “any person found to be entitled to refugee status and referred by UNHCR to the US.”
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Tuesday, following a meeting with UNHCR’s regional representative Jahanshah Assadi, that resettlement overseas may not be the best way to deal with the Montagnard refugees.
While US sources admit to resettling 24 hill tribe members, as many as 38 may have been given asylum in the US after negotiations between the US Embassy here, UNHCR and senior Cambodian officials, according to hill tribe members now living in the US.
It remains unclear how and when future refugees will be handled, but at least a temporary UNHCR presence is a necessary first step, diplomats said.
“Cambodia has said it will deal with hill tribe people who might be seeking asylum, but unless UNHCR is there to assess who is out there and in what numbers, it’s not going to happen,” one diplomatic source said.
The government maintains that it will cooperate with asylum seekers and the UNHCR, but Cambodia’s border with its eastern neighbor is being strengthened to prevent an influx of illegal immigrants, both government and diplomatic sources said.
Patrice Bonnal, first secretary of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh, said France has not yet considered if it would be willing to resettle refugees. But he left the door open to the possibility saying, “maybe it will come.”