A day after opposition lawmaker Son Chhay pressed Western diplomats to visit the northeastern provinces where Montagnard asylum seekers are languishing in the jungle, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong acknowledged that some Montagnards under UN protection in Phnom Penh are political refugees.
“We will ease up,” Hor Namhong said Friday. “For those who are really political refugees, we will allow the UN [High Commissioner for Refugees] to issue [identification] cards for them to go to a third country.”
Hor Namhong’s comments followed a meeting on Friday with a group of European ambassadors visiting from Bangkok who raised the Montagnard issue.
“The most important thing is that those who cross the border are being checked properly according to international standards to determine if they are a political refugee,” said Dutch Ambassador Gerard Kramerhe.
Hor Namhong also said the government plans to invite Jean-Marie Fakhouri, head of the UNHCR’s Asia-Pacific office in Geneva, to Phnom Penh next month to sign a new agreement on refugees.
Though more than 1,000 Montagnard refugees in Cambodia have been continuously resettled in third countries with the government’s approval since 2002, Hor Namhong’s comments on the political nature of the Montagnard flight clashed head on with Hanoi.
On Friday, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry refuted reports that 21 Montagnard asylum seekers were photographed in hiding in Ratanakkiri province with little food, water or medicine. Local sources cited in the report also claimed that around 160 Montagnards who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands were hiding in Cambodia.
“There are no reasons for ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands to leave their homeland,” Le Dung, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying by Vietnam News Agency. “We reject the information published in The Cambodia Daily,” Le Dung added.
Son Chhay’s letter, dated Thursday, requested that diplomats from the US, Canada, Britain and Germany visit the sites where the ethnic minorities are hiding to provide “some kind of direct protection.” Diplomats from the four nations recently met with co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng to request access to the border regions.
“Soon the government officials will discover where…the refugees hide out and they will quickly move to arrest and deport them back to Vietnam, and if this [is] to happen, then you will be seen [as] not being sincere with your cause in implementing your moral obligation towards these indigenous people,” Son Chhay wrote.
Local sources in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri province have claimed that Vietnamese authorities offer rewards in gold and provide Cambodian forces with food and other materials in return for hunting down asylum seekers.
The government has denied the UNHCR, which is the only body authorized to determine asylum claims in Cambodia, access to the border regions.
Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UNHCR in Phnom Penh, said he had heard nothing from the government on Friday about the proposed visit.
As for Hor Namhong’s claim that the government will let refugees be resettled, Mihajlovic said that all resettlements are approved by the government.
“We’ve been doing this for the last two years,” he said. “I guess [the government] wants some political mileage out of it.”