The government will allow the UN’s refugee center in Phnom Penh to stay open until mid-February in order to allow more time to resettle 62 Vietnamese Montagnard refugees, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said yesterday.
“Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] has decided to extend [the center] until mid-February,” Mr Namhong told reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport upon returning to Cambodia from an official visit to China.
He added that Long Visalo, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would meet with officials from the UN High Commissioner of Refugees in Cambodia in order to inform the agency of the extension, which allows the center to keep its doors open until Feb 15.
Last month, the government requested that UNHCR shut down the center and said it would deport any asylum-seekers who had not yet acquired refugee status. There are currently 76 Montagnards at the center, only 62 of whom have acquired refugee status.
Rights groups say that deporting the remaining 14 Montagnards, as the government said it intends to do, would violate the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, which Cambodia has ratified. It would also ignore a 2009 sub-decree that states asylum-seekers who fear “serious persecution” in their home country should be granted refugee status.
Mr Namhong said yesterday that in the past the government and UNHCR had publicly evaluated each case of a Montagnard seeking asylum in Cambodia to decide whether resettlement was necessary. He did not elaborate on what procedure would be used after the center closes down.
Rights groups say that Montagnards face serious persecution in Vietnam, where the government sometimes forces them to renounce their religion and make public confessions of wrongdoings.
Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Asia, said yesterday that her office had not yet been informed about the government’s decision.
“We are still trying to verify this report officially. But if it’s true it would be very good news because this is exactly what we were asking the Cambodian government to do,” she said.
She declined to comment on the government’s decision to deport the 14 Montagnard asylum-seekers who have not yet been interviewed to determine their refugee status.
In a statement yesterday, the opposition SRP questioned the government’s ability to uphold its human rights obligations.
“The Cambodia government’s abrupt order for the closure of the UNHCR center can be determined as a complicit act with the Vietnamese government’s policy of restricting what religion its people are allowed to believe,” the statement said.
Son Chhay, lawmaker for the opposition SRP, said yesterday the government’s actions were in direct opposition to the UN’s refugee convention, which lays out fundamental rights for immigrants who flee persecution in their home country.
“The government so far has not been taking the UN convention seriously,” he said. “They continue to manipulate the immigration law to abuse refugees many times over.”
Mr Chhay called on the government to “allow the center to stay on as long as it [is] needed.”
He also charged that the government was more focused on “serving the interests of the Vietnamese and Chinese governments” that protecting the rights of refugees entering Cambodia.
“You have to look at the refugee situation as a similar problem as the human rights issue in Cambodia,” he said.
In December last year, Cambodia deported 20 Uighur asylum-seekers to China before UNHCR had a chance to determine their refugee status.