Gov’t Has Change of Heart About Montagnards

Interior Ministry officials announced on Wednesday that more than 170 Montagnards from Vietnam who were blocked from registering as refugees will now have their claims assessed, while 13 who have been granted refugee status are to be transferred to the Philippines while they seek asylum in a third country.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng met with James Lynch, the U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR) regional representative, on Wednesday afternoon for discussions relating to the asylum seekers, who have crossed into Cambodia since late 2014 claiming to have fled persecution in Vietnam.

James Lynch, right, the regional representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, leaves a meeting with Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
James Lynch, right, the regional representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, leaves a meeting with Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The most recent deadline for the UNHCR to resettle the initial group of 13 in a third country elapsed on January 10, while the roughly 200 other asylum seekers were told they had until February 6 to return to Vietnam—leading dozens to undertake the risk.

However, in an unexpected about-face, Phat Sophanit, an Interior Ministry cabinet official, told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting that 171 Montagnards who were blocked from the refugee registration process would now be eligible for assessment.

Contacted by telephone after the meeting, Por Phak, deputy chief of Mr. Kheng’s cabinet, confirmed that the Montagnards would now have their applications processed.

“We agreed to continue to work together between Cambodia and UNHCR regarding the determination of refugee status,” Lieutenant General Phak said. “We want to expedite the process in having more than 100 Montagnards to be interviewed in the near future so their refugee status can be determined.”

Along with assessing the claims of the Montagnards who have thus far been blocked, the government agreed to have the 13 registered refugees transferred to the Philippines while efforts continue to find them a third country, Lt. Gen. Phak said.

“We can work on these issues… to find a third country [for them] to be resettled. They will be transferred, if you will, to the Philippines and that will be the next step for the 13,” he said.

“The idea as of now is that they are in transition, it’s not their final destination.”

Speaking outside the meeting at the Interior Ministry, Mr. Sophanit said Mr. Lynch explained the group would be housed in a “temporary camp” in the Philippines. Mr. Lynch declined to comment as he exited the meeting.

Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, said she had yet to receive confirmation of the agreement, but welcomed reports that the Cambodian government would process the refugee applications.

“I have to say that I’m very delighted that the Cambodian government is following its obligations un- der the International Convention on Refugees and beginning to process their claims,” Ms. Coughlan said.

“It’s good news for the Montagnards and refugee activists.”

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