Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday indicated that the 24 Vietnamese arrested for illegally entering the country will be sent back to their native land, saying Cambodia will not be a safe haven for opposition groups or any other organization committing illegal acts in their country.
“I absolutely will not allow Cambodia to become a safe refuge,” Hun Sen said at the Council of Ministers.
“Therefore, there is no suspicion that Cambodia is a safe place for criminals or opponents of any country. And we do not give a chance for political asylum for opponents in this region. That is our policy and principle that cannot be violated.”
Human rights groups said the case of the 23 men and one woman, who are suspected of being members of a Vietnamese resistance group, should be reviewed to see whether they face persecution in Vietnam before deciding if they should be sent back to their homeland.
“The government should not do this without checking first if they are really victims,” said Thun Saray, president of the local human rights group Adhoc. “And if they really are asylum seekers who face oppression, then the government should not send them back.”
The government has not indicated when the two dozen detainees would be returned to Vietnam.
The UN High Commission for Refugees sent a letter Monday morning to the government asking to discuss the issue and requesting access to the Vietnamese, but had not received a response as of Monday afternoon.
“We don’t know anything yet, and we can’t presume they are refugees or asylum seekers,” said a commission representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In order to know that, we have to interview them and assess the situation.”
Vong Phisen, deputy military police commander, said he had not officially been informed of the UN commission or any other human rights groups wishing to see the Vietnamese, who are currently being detained at military police headquarters.
He said the group might be transferred to the Interior Ministry because it handles immigration issues.
A Licadho spokesperson noted that Cambodia signed the 1951 convention on refugees, which means the country agreed to not send back those who fear persecution in their native country.
“The detainees shouldn’t be returned to Vietnam immediately,” the spokesperson said. “Their case should be under review by UNHCR.”
The Vietnamese, reported to be part of ethnic communities in Vietnam’s central highlands, were arrested in Mondolkiri province on March 17 and March 22 for illegally entering Cambodia. The group told Cambodian officials they fled Vietnam following Hanoi’s crackdown on hill tribes.
The group is suspected by some government officials of being members of the Free Vietnam movement, a resistance group opposed to the Hanoi government. In the past, suspected members of the movement who were arrested in Cambodia were deported to Vietnam.
“The Cambodian government’s policy with neighboring countries is that foreigners who enter Cambodia must be sent back to their native country,” Hun Sen said. “Anyone who wants to say something about this is their choice. But our communication is with the government of the other country. We don’t communicate with bandits or rebels.”
The prime minister said he expected neighboring countries to have the same attitude, as when Cambodia has appealed to the Thai government to return Cambodians seeking asylum in Thailand.
The Cambodian government is currently fighting for the extradition from Thailand of Sam Rainsy Party member Sok Yoeun to face charges that he masterminded a 1998 rocket attack, which the government is calling an attempt on Hun Sen’s life.
In a Defense Ministry meeting Monday morning, an RCAF general said he told his colleagues the Vietnamese must be returned to their country.
“The Vietnamese have weapons and they are illegal immigrants so they must be sent back,” he said.
Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung said it is normal for those who illegally enter Cambodia to be sent back to their homeland.
He also said the embassy is looking into whether the Vietnamese, who were initially thought to be members of another anti-Hanoi movement comprised of ethnic minorities, are members of the Free Vietnam movement.
He said he plans to meet the group soon.
“This is the usual practice to send them back,” he said. “Of course we would like them to be in Vietnam.”