Immigration Chief Accuses UN of Smuggling Asylum Seekers

The head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department said Wednesday he was unaware that 40 Montagnard asylum seekers were now awaiting registration in Phnom Penh and accused the U.N.’s refugee agency of illegally bringing Vietnamese immigrants into Cambodia.

General Sok Phal said he was only aware of 13 asylum seekers who were already processed and given refugee status by the government, despite confirmation from the U.N. on Wednesday that 40 more are now in the city.

“I do not know anything about the arrival of Vietnamese immigrants in Phnom Penh,” Gen. Phal said. “We have no need to search for those Vietnamese immigrants but we will arrest those people if we see them because they crossed the border illegally.”

Gen. Phal accused the office of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of conspiring with “illegal Vietnamese immigrants.”

“I think that the UNHCR is wrong because they brought immigrants into [Cambodia]…. The law says that any individual that has conspired with immigrants must be condemned following the law,” he said.

“I offer the suggestion to you to tell the UNHCR that they could get a penalty because they brought illegal Vietnamese immigrants to Cambodia without informing authorities about the case,” he added, citing the government’s sub-decree 224 on refugees.

That sub-decree makes no mention of individuals who conspire to transport illegal immigrants into the country, but does state that the Interior Ministry “shall ensure full cooperation with UNHCR in the implementation of the provisions of [the] sub-decree.”

The latest influx of Vietnam’s indigenous Montagnards—most of which have crossed the border into Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadaw and Lumphat districts—began in late October. All claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution in their home country.

However, Interior Ministry and Ratanakkiri provincial officials have repeatedly referred to the Montagnards as “illegal immigrants,” threatening to deport them and arrest Cambodians found to be hiding them.

Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, did not reply Wednesday to questions regarding Gen. Phal’s threats of a “penalty.”

However, both Ms. Tan and Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said 40 Montagnard asylum seekers are now in Phnom Penh.

“We are aware of 40 asylum seekers are in Phnom Penh awaiting registration by the Refugee Department. They are being cared for by UNHCR and NGOs,” Ms. Lee said in an email.

“We are aware of several more in Ratanakkiri. We continue to advocate for and offer assistance toward their safe passage with the responsible authorities, who are ultimately responsible for guaranteeing safe passage,” she added.

(Additional reporting by George Wright)

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