Ministry Says UNHCR Lured Montagnards Here: Ministry UNCHRForeign Ministry

The Foreign Ministry has ac­cused the UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees yet again of encouraging Montagnard asylum-seekers to flee into Cambodia, by using megaphones to call them out of hiding in the jungles of Ratanakkiri province.

The accusation came as it emerg­ed that the UNHCR has dropped the Jesuit Refugee Service as a partner providing services to Monta­gnard asylums-seekers and re­placed the organization with a little-known local NGO headed by a mem­­ber of staff at the Council of Min­­isters.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sec­retary of State Long Visalo told re­porters at the ministry on Tuesday that Foreign Minister Hor Nam­hong made the accusation against the UN agency during a meeting in Phnom Penh with Erika Feller, as­sistant high commissioner for protection at the UNHCR.

“Firstly it is not appropriate and secondly it seems to disseminate in­formation to convince Montag­nards to come from Vietnam,” Long Visalo said of the alleged use of megaphones.

The practice is encouraging ethnic minority villagers in Cambodia to disguise themselves as Montag­nards and seek asylum, Long Visalo add­ed. He also accused the UNHCR of protecting asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and South Asia without consulting the government.

The government wants to establish a national immigration law en­abling government officials to as­sess the asylum claims of ref­u­gees rather than the UNHCR, he added.

“When we have an immigration law, the interviewing job will be our responsibility. We are the land owners.”

Deborah Backus, spokeswo­man for UNHCR in Phnom Penh, de­nied that that agency lured Mon­tag­nards across the border, adding that the UN protects anyone who qualifies for refugee status.

Backus also said that the decision to drop JRS from its work with Montagnard asylum-seekers was prompted by disagreement on UNHCR policy, which she declin­ed to elaborate on.

The JRS, which has been working with the UNHCR since the ear­ly 1990s on refugee issues and with the Montagnards since 2004, was on a one-year contract with the UNHCR, which expired at the end of last year.

“There was obvious differences in the interpretation of our roles and responsibilities,” Backus said of the JRS.

“It was decided in everyone’s interests [for JRS] not to continue as our partners in providing services to the Montagnards,” she added.

JRS Director Denise Coghlan declined comment, other than to say: “Perhaps one should ask the refugees themselves if it was in their best interests.”

The International Friendship De­velopment Organization has been working as the UNHCR’s implementation partner since Jan 1, Back­us added. The NGO distributes food at the UNHCR’s facilities, as well as taking Montagnards to hospital and providing classes in English, math and sewing.

But several local human rights organizations said they had never heard of IFDO.

Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, also warned that an NGO headed by a government official should not be providing services to asylum-seekers, given the treatment by some government officials of Montagnards fleeing to Cambodia.

Since the first exhausted groups of Montagnards emerged from the jun­gles in Mondolkiri and Ratanak­kiri province in 2001 and then again in 2004, civilian, police and military officials have been accused of forcibly deporting the asylum-seekers back to Vietnam.

Police officers were also accused in July 2005 of using violence against members of a group of some 100 rejected asylum-seekers, which included women and children, who were being forced back to Vietnam.

The UNHCR later retracted com­ments by one of its staff members that violence had occurred inside their facility, despite ac­counts by others present at the time that violence did occur.

JRS staff were inside the facility at the time.

“I don’t understand why UNHCR ceased its contract with JRS. I hope it is not because JRS has been challenging some of UNHCR’s previous decisions and actions,” Pilorge wrote in an e-mail on Wednesday.

“We find that the leadership and employees at JRS are capable and ethical, and JRS has a history of doing similar work in other countries,” she said.

There is no institutional history of IFDO providing refugee services, Pilorge said.

“I assume the clients would be quite fearful of the head of this NGO if they knew he was a government official,” she added.

Pouv Borei is identified on one side of his business card as the executive director of IFDO, and on the other side as a “government attorney” and “officer” at the Council of Ministers.

Contacted on Wednesday, Pouv Borei said that he still worked at the Council of Minister but he didn’t go to work there very often because of the low pay.

“I’m the staff usually. I don’t go to work because my salary is very low. I study and go to work at the NGO,” he said by telephone.

Pouv Borei asked that further questions be sent in an e-mail that he had not responded to by Wed­nesday night.

Backus said that Pouv Borei had worked with the Council of Ministers from 1997 to 2000, and was an intern at law school during some of that time, but he had since finished working there.

“He doesn’t work for the government at this time,” Backus said.

The IFDO was founded in 1994 to help rural households in Takeo prov­ince and has since conducted hu­man rights training, family counseling, micro-credit projects and agricultural training, she said.

“They are a new agency and JRS has worked with refugees for many, many years, but the positive thing is that it is a local NGO, and we can build the capacity of a local NGO,” she added.

Backus said IFDO was recommended to the UNCHR by a “variety of people in the community” but declined to elaborate.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, Adhoc President Thun Saray and Touch Tum, executive director of Human Rights Vigilance of Cambo­dia, said they had not heard of the IFDO.

The organization is not a member of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee; an um­brella group of 18 local rights NGOs.

The Montagnards have been a political hot potato for the government, which has faced intense pressure from Vietnam. Vietnam has de­nied that the mainly Christ­ian Mon­tagnards in the Central Highlands face religious persecution and have lost their ancestral lands to low-land settlers.

Hanoi has branded those who flee to Cambodia as illegal immigrants or pro-US reactionaries bent on destabilizing the government.

     (Additional reporting by Phann Ana)


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