UN refugee workers will not be allowed access to 24 detained Vietnamese until the government has conducted its own investigation, a government spokesman said Wednesday.
Khieu Kanharith said the decision is a precaution against the possibility that refugee workers might prompt the detainees, believed to be members of an ethnic minority group, to seek refugee status and asylum in Cambodia dishonestly .
“We need to conduct our own investigation first. If the organization investigates first we won’t be sure what they were really doing in Cambodia,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith said the presence in Cambodia of the 24, who told provincial authorities in Mondolkiri that they fled persecution in Vietnam, does not necessarily make them refugees.
“You can be a refugee if you come and declare yourself. But you cannot wait until you are arrested,” Khieu Kanharith said.
The government’s statement comes amid mounting criticism that Cambodia is not acting in accordance with its international commitments to refugees and asylum seekers.
The 23 men and one woman were arrested earlier this month in Mondolkiri province. They told local authorities that they had fled Vietnam March 1 following two months of unrest among ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, Governor Tor Soeuth said Wednesday.
The group is requesting temporary asylum in Cambodia, he said.
“They are worried they will be arrested,” he said. “That is why they fled into Cambodia for help. Some of their friends who joined the protest have already been arrested. They know the same will happen to them.”
On Monday Prime Minister Hun Sen said the 24 will be sent back to Vietnam and that Cambodia will not become a “safe refuge” for opponents of the region’s governments.
Vietnamese Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesman Phan Thuy Thanh said Tuesday that Amnesty International’s call for the group to be granted refugee status by Cambodia “constitutes a violation of internal affairs of other countries,” state-run Vietnamese media reported.
“This act is therefore totally unacceptable. With this act, the Amnesty International is actually encouraging illegal departure from the country and disrupting the peaceful life of the people living along the Vietnam-Cambodia border,” Phan Thuy Thanh said.
Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s senior regional liaison officer, said the continued reluctance by Cambodian officials to allow access to the 24 was a concern for the organization.
“As you know we have requested access and not yet got it. This is of concern to us but we hope the government will respond positively,” he said.
Cambodia is a signatory to the 1951 UN convention related to the status of refugees and is obliged to ensure that refugee status determination procedures are conducted, Ratwatte said.
If refugee status is granted, the 24 cannot be held in prison and must be assisted with remaining in Cambodia or traveling to a third country.
“We can only urge that authorities live up to this international obligation,” Ratwatte said, noting that some 500,000 Cambodian people who have sought safe refuge and asylum have been assisted by the UNHCR in the past three decades.
Lao Mong Hay, president of the Khmer Institute of Democracy and winner of UNHCR’s prestigious Nansen Medal in 2000 for his commitment to the plight of Cambodian refugees, said the law must be observed in dealing with the 24 to determine if they have broken the law and if they are seeking asylum.
Lao Mong Hay issued a statement calling on the government to reflect on Cambodia’s own recent history as a nation from which thousands of its people have sought refuge in other countries.
“Former Cambodian asylum seekers in Vietnam, in Thailand or in any other country in [the] 1970s and 1980s need to imagine what would have happened to them had Vietnamese or Thai rulers made the same decision to send them back to Cambodia in those days,” he wrote.
“They should recall that even Vietnamese rulers did not send back Cambodians who fled [Vietnamese] rule over Cambodia in the 1980s and sought refuge in Vietnam on their way to a third country,” he added. “Cambodians who have benefited from such generosity should be generous in turn and allow those 24 Vietnamese nationals safe refuge.”
Lao Mong Hay also said that many will perceive the announced plans to deport the 24 as continuing subservience to Hanoi on the part of Cambodia’s leaders.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said those seeking refuge in Cambodia and those using Cambodia as a “sanctuary” are very different concepts.
“Cambodia suffered for more than 20 years from being in the same situation because other countries gave sanctuary,” Khieu Sopheak said in an indirect reference to the existence of anti-Phnom Penh forces that operated from inside Thai territory during the 1980s. “Cambodia has learned from this and will not let it happen to any other country.”
Heng Samrin, deputy-president of the National Assembly, said Wednesday that he commiserated with the plight of the 24 but added that the government is obliged under its Asean agreements on regional security to deport the group.
Sending the group back is also not unique, Heng Samrin said, noting that Cambodia has returned many Vietnamese who have crossed the border illegally.
“I pity them too. But I don’t know why they came here and what their purpose is. If the government allows asylum it is against the Asean agreement on neighboring countries,” he said.
Heng Samrin was among many Cambodians who sought refuge in Vietnam from political persecution by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. But the situation has now changed and Cambodia cannot now provide the same refuge, he said.
“At that time Hun Sen was also arrested and they were going to send him back to Cambodia but he was lucky,” he said. “The Vietnamese…let the Cambodians stay and organize against Pol Pot.”