Gov’t Orders UN Refugee Center to Shut Down

More than a dozen Montagnards risk being deported back to Vietnam

The government has announced it will shutter a center run by the UN’s refugee agency in Phnom Penh on Jan 1 and deport any Vietnamese Montagnard asylum-seekers who have not yet received refugee status.

The center has for years successfully housed almost one thousand Vietnamese refugees in preparation for resettlement.

In a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees dated Nov 29, the government said it will close down the center, which currently houses 76 Montagnard asylum-seekers—only 62 of whom have been granted refugee status.

According to the letter, the government will repatriate the remaining 14 before their claims for asylum are processed.

“UNHCR is requested to speed up the process of resettling the 62 Montagnards who are qualified for resettlement in third countries,” the letter said. “The Royal Government of Cambodia will repatriate to Vietnam the remaining Montagnards including the new arrivals and those awaiting interview, on a date to be notified in due course.”

For years Montagnards, ethnic minorities from Vietnam’s highlands, many of whom attend Protestant churches that are not formally recognized by the state, have fled the country to escape persecution by Vietnamese authorities. Many have escaped through Cambodia, one of the only parties to the 1951 refugee convention in the region.

Toshi Kawauchi, head of UNHCR in Cambodia, said yesterday that UNHCR was “constantly discussing” with the government in order to extend the amount of time the refugee agency has to successfully resettle asylum-seekers with refugee status.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the 14 Montagnards who had not received refugee status could be deported to Vietnam under immigration law.

Mr Kuong provided little reason yesterday for the government’s decision to shutter the refugee center.

“We want to close it down because it has been long enough,” he said. “If we keep it longer and longer the problem is still there.”

Mr Kuong said he was unaware if the Vietnamese government had contacted Cambodia regarding the Montagnards currently based in Cambodia.

He also said that UNHCR had contacted the government to ask for an extension on the proposed January 1 closing date, and that the government was considering the request.

“The decision is not yet made. We are still considering the request. We will decide on the request very soon,” he said late yesterday.

UNHCR’s Asia spokeswoman, Kitty McKinsey, said the agency would need more time to find resettlement locations for the refugees currently residing at the center.

“We asked the government to give us more time to find a long-term solution for these 62 refugees,” she said. “We hope that would be considered favorably by the Cambodian government.”

Ms McKinsey declined to say what the repercussions would be for the remaining asylum-seekers if they were sent back to Vietnam and did not elaborate on why the government had decided to shutter the center.

“I think you would have to ask [the government] why they have taken that decision,” she said.

She added that organizing asylum for refugees could take any amount of time as resettlement often depends on complex negotiations with the countries willing to provide asylum.

UNHCR has so far resettled 999 Montagnards, mostly to the US, she said.

Leminh Ngoc, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said he was too busy to comment on the Cambodian government’s decision.

Cambodia’s stance toward asylum-seekers was most recently in the spotlight in December 2009, when the government decided to send 20 Uighur asylum-seekers back to China before UNHCR had time to assess their refugee status. The decision drew criticism from rights groups worldwide, who said Cambodia was reneging on its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 convention, by which refugees cannot be repatriated to a country where they might suffer from persecution.

In July 2005, 94 Montagnards whose claims for asylum had been rejected by UNHCR were violently extracted from a refugee facility run jointly by UNHCR and the Cambodian government.

According to Human Rights Watch, police employed violent tactics including striking Montagnards with electric batons, something that UNHCR later denied.

First-hand accounts and sources within Vietnam said that some asylum-seekers who were returned to Vietnam from Cambodia were jailed and interrogated using torture.

“It is not suitable to close the refugee center,” said Pen Bonnar, coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri province, where many Montagnards have entered Cambodia from Vietnam seeking asylum. “We should not send them back to Vietnam. If so they would live in danger…and would receive serious threat to their lives.”

Outside the UNHCR refugee center in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district yesterday, groups of young Montagnards could be seen poking their heads around the door to take packets of corn chips purchased for them by a guard from a shop across the road.

The owner of the shop, who only gave her name as Ry, said she remembered a day about a year ago when two teenage Montagnard girls were sent back to Vietnam in a car belonging to UNHCR.

“They were crying,” she said. “The Montagnards here look quite well. They look like they are happier than in their own country.”

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