Vietnamese Montagnards fleeing into Cambodia are not refugees and will not be given asylum here, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Thursday following talks with officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We will push them back be-cause we consider them illegal immigrants…the main purpose of these people is to go to the US through Cambodia,” Hor Namhong said, appearing to contradict statements made only minutes before by the UNHCR’s regional representative, Jahanshah Assadi, that the government remains open to sheltering future asylum seekers.
“We’ll keep the door open to discussions,” the foreign minister said. “But the current position of the government is not to accept people who come across the border without any papers, without visas.”
More than 1,000 Montagnards were camped in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces since they fled a government crackdown on protests in Vietnam’s Central Highlands last year.
The exodus has “created a heavy headache” for the country, Prime Minister Hun Sen said early this week, straining relations between Cambodia and Vietnam, which has engaged in a war of words with the US over human rights conditions in the Central Highlands.
More than 100 Montagnards have since returned home, and Cambodia has agreed to let more than 900 Montagnards currently under the UNHCR’s care to go to the US in a massive resettlement effort, though no date has been set yet for moving those asylum seekers out of UNHCR camps into Phnom Penh.
But in a nod to Vietnam, which has demanded that any Montagnard be immediately returned to the Central Highlands, Hun Sen said that the agency’s camps in Cambodia will be closed and the border sealed to future asylum seekers.
This has drawn fire from both the UNHCR and human rights groups, who claim the government is violating international refugee conventions by not allowing asylum seekers temporary safety in Cambodia.
“Like any government, Cambodia has an obligation under international law to keep its borders open to those fleeing persecution and to provide at least temporary protection and asylum,” said Rachel Reilly in a statement from the US-based Human Rights Watch.
Following Thursday’s hour-long meeting, Assadi said the UNHCR supports Cambodia’s decision to resettlement the Montagnards, but also said that resettlement does not close the issue of asylum in Cambodia.
“We will continue to discuss the issue of asylum in this country beyond these 900 Montagnards,” Assadi said.
“[The Cambodian government] does not need to be reminded by anyone that it is party to the [refugee] convention, and the foreign minister has made note of this.”
Some fear that taking the Montagnards to the US, which has already resettled at least 38 hill tribe asylum seekers in the last year, will cause a massive rush for the border from the Central Highlands, where rights groups and those already in the UNHCR’s camps claim government persecution persists.
One police official acknowledged last week that Montagnards are now on the border and will enter Cambodia if they want to, despite hundreds of police who have been posted in the area to stop a possible influx of Montagnards.
Assadi said that no special preparations have been made by the UNHCR for future asylum seekers, but that “If new arrivals come, we will continue to do what UNHCR has to do, and I am sure Cambodia will continue to do what it has to do with regards to the 1951 [refugee] convention.”
But according to Hor Namhong, that convention does not apply in the case of the Montagnards.
“There’s no war, no political tension or disaster that has pushed these people to look for refuge outside Vietnam,” he said.
Hor Namhong said he expects to meet with US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann in coming days to discuss how many of the now 905 Montagnards realistically want to resettle in the US. He said he was concerned by reports that not all of the asylum seekers wish to leave for the US, but are still also refusing to return to Vietnam.
“We agreed [to resettlement] because America agreed to take them all. If they do not want to go to Vietnam, what can we do?” he asked. “We do not accept these refugees in our country any more.”
Cambodia has said it wants all the Montagnards to leave the country one way or the other by April 30—a condition that partially helped to derail a UNHCR repatriation deal that was first suspended and then abandoned last month by the agency, which accused Vietnam of failing to cooperate.
The UNHCR said earlier that any deadline took away the voluntary nature of returns to Vietnam, and Assadi on Thursday again acknowledged the deadline as an “indication of a timeframe,” but said he was told by the Cambodians there is “not a hard and fast deadline for anything.”