The Cambodian government has taken another step toward allowing Vietnamese Montagnard asylum seekers to be resettled in the US.
Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said Monday he has sent a request to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, officially initiating the Cambodian effort in the resettlement process.
Mohammad Alnassery, program officer for the International Organization for Migration, said he expected an agreement to be reached between Cambodia, the UNHCR and “any other involved parties” by the end of this week.
The UNHCR must then determine how many of the 905 Montagnards currently living in UNHCR camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces want to move to the US.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann again emphasized Monday that the resettlement is voluntary. “We will offer the opportunity to the Montagnards…to go to the US, but if they prefer to be repatriated to Vietnam, they have that right,” he said.
The asylum seekers have not yet been polled, but “our preliminary indication is that the majority in the camps would prefer to be resettled,” Wiedemann said. He said the number who want to go to the US should be known “in a day or two.”
The US offered to resettle the Montagnards, who say they are fleeing racial, religious and political persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, after a UNHCR agreement with Cambodia and Vietnam to return them to Vietnam fell apart last month.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Sunday that Cambodia would agree to the US resettlement offer. Although Vietnam has opposed past Montagnard resettlements, Hor Namhong said Vietnam has not responded to the current plan and will not be involved in it. “We don’t need Vietnam’s permission to do this,” he said.
News services in Hanoi quoted a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman as saying Vietnam would allow the resettlements.
Hor Namhong confirmed Monday that no more Montagnards will be allowed to cross the border. Any future hill tribe members who flee Vietnam and seek asylum in Cambodia will be deported. The Associated Press reported that about 400 Cambodian troops have been deployed to seal the border.
But critics say such actions violate a 1951 international convention on refugees to which Cambodia is a signatory. The convention requires countries to temporarily harbor those who would seek refuge from conflict or persecution until the UNHCR can determine if their complaints are legitimate.
Asked if Cambodia was concerned it might be breaking its promises, Hor Namhong said: “We consider the people crossing the border to be illegal immigrants. We have to send them back.”
UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment Monday.