The government said yesterday it would stand by its decision to deport 14 Vietnamese Montagnard asylum-seekers from Cambodia, while rights groups questioned whether any measures would be taken to properly determine if they deserve refugee status and resettlement in a foreign country.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said yesterday that the government would deport all Montagnards currently residing at a center run by the UN’s refugee agency under the immigration law, which states that the government has the right to deport immigrants who have entered the country illegally.
“The government will leave UNHCR to do their job, especially for the 62 Montagnards with refugee status,” he said. “The other 14, the government will send them back.”
In a letter dated Nov 29, the government ordered the UN refugee agency to shutter its refugee center in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district by Jan 1. There are currently 76 Vietnamese Montagnard asylum-seekers inside the complex, of whom 14 are still waiting to have their refugee status determined.
Rights groups say, however, that deporting the Montagnards, who originate in Vietnam’s central highlands and are largely Christian, goes against Cambodian law as well as requirements laid out in the 1951 UN refugee convention, to which Cambodia is a party.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said yesterday that it was essential that the 14 asylum-seekers without refugee status should be given a chance to acquire it.
“[T]hey should be provided with this opportunity immediately, and that determination needs to be transparent, fair, and in line with international standards,” he wrote in an e-mail.
According to the refugee convention, persons that leave their country of origin for reasons of persecution “are entitled to special protection on account of their position.”
It also recommends that governments “continue to receive refugees in their territories and that they act in concert in a true spirit of international cooperation in order that these refugees may find asylum and possibility of resettlement.”
A sub-decree passed by Cambodia in December 2009 states that asylum-seekers who fear “serious persecution” in their home country should be given refugee status, as well as allowing for legal representation upon expulsion.
The law describes refugees as “those who are outside their country of nationality or stateless individuals who are outside the country where they used to live.”
Mr Kuong said that any newly arrived Montagnards would be dealt with under the immigration law, and that applying other laws was not necessary in the case of the Montagnards as Vietnam was not a dangerous country to live in.
“We send them back because in Vietnam there is no war, there is no rebellion,” he said. “It’s a peaceful country.”
Mr Kuong added that the government would likely make a decision “next week” on whether or not UNHCR would be allowed to keep its center open beyond Jan 1 in order to resettle the 62 refugees.
Rights groups say that Montagnards are still at high risk of persecution and oppression in Vietnam, where the government does not recognize their religious practices.
On Tuesday, Release International, an organization that assists persecuted Christians around the world, reported that Nguyen Hong Quang, a Montagnard pastor who leads the Mennonite church in Vietnam, was beaten unconscious at his school in Ho Chi Minh City.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)