Government officials on Friday continued to deny any knowledge of the presence of 40 Montagnards in Phnom Penh despite the U.N. and rights groups claiming the asylum seekers are in limbo after being told they cannot register with the Interior Ministry’s refugee department.
A statement released by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and local rights group Licadho on Friday stated that the 40 asylum seekers have been blocked from registering as refugees and called on the government to give them access to the asylum process.
“Forty…have managed to make their way to Phnom Penh by various routes. Some of them have presented themselves to the government’s Refugee Department, but been told they cannot be registered,” the statement said.
“Recently, others have been told they will not even be allowed to present themselves for possible registration. Six of them are children, one a 15-month-old baby,” it added.
Since the Montagnards, who claim to be persecuted by Hanoi, began streaming over the border in late October, 54 have been deported back to Vietnam.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), confirmed in an email Friday that the group of 40 had been unable to register and said the U.N. was in discussions with the authorities to allow the Montagnards to have their asylum claims reviewed.
Despite this, General Sok Phal, chief of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, claimed he had no knowledge of the group being in Phnom Penh and reiterated warnings he made to the U.N. on Wednesday that it could be breaking the law by assisting asylum seekers from Vietnam.
“We don’t know. You can inform the U.N. be careful about the law, they must obey the law in Cambodia,” said Gen. Phal.
“Now Cambodia is the owner of the country, not the U.N,” he said.
The immigration chief cited sub-decree 224, which deals with the procedures for recognizing refugees or providing asylum rights to foreigners in Cambodia.
Licadho and HRW said the government is justifying its treatment of the Montagnards based on the 2009 sub-decree, which they argue was designed to provide a basis to deport 20 Chinese Uighur asylum seekers back to China.
The rights groups also suggest Gen. Phal’s threats to the U.N. are in reference to Article 29 of Cambodia’s 1994 Immigration Law against UNHCR personnel, which provides for imprisonment from three to six months to individuals who “provide assistance to or help conceal the transport of” an alien who enters Cambodia “without authorization” and remains “in hiding or disguise or by means of other subterfuges.”
In the statement, HRW Asia director Brad Adams called on the international community to urge the Cambodian government to refrain from deporting the group.
“If Cambodia’s donors don’t act immediately and forthrightly to stay the government’s hand, we may see a mass forced deportation even larger than that of the Chinese Uighurs in 2009,” he said.
“This would be a disaster not only for those returned, but for human rights generally in Cambodia, and the government should know it will pay a big diplomatic price if it goes ahead with such an outrage.”