The government will deport Montagnard asylum-seekers back to Vietnam if the UN cannot resettle them in a third country within a month, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong said Wednesday.
“We will allow the UNHCR one month to send those refugees to a third country. But if after one month, the UNHCR cannot send them to a third country, we will send them back to Vietnam,” Hor Namhong told reporters after a meeting in Siem Reap between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the leaders of Vietnam and Laos.
Between Friday and Tuesday, 126 Montagnards have emerged from their jungle hiding places in Ratanakkiri province into UNHCR protection. Though many have praised the government for its recent decision to allow the UNHCR access to the asylum-seekers, Hor Namhong’s comments appear to conflict with Cambodia’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Two conditions must be met before Cambodia can deport asylum-seekers, according to a recent statement by the UN Human Rights office in Phnom Penh.
First, their application for refugee status must be refused after being reviewed through a “fair status determination procedure.” Since the government has yet to develop procedures for refugee status determination, this task belongs to the UNHCR, the statement said.
Second, there must be no evidence to indicate that if asylum-seekers are returned, their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social or political group, or that they would be subjected to torture.
“The granting of asylum to a refugee is not a hostile act…. This is usually done by independent and impartial decision makers who apply the law without regard to political considerations,” the statement said.
An April report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the government deported at least 270 Montagnard asylum-seekers in 2003. This year, human rights workers in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces say the government has deported more than 160 asylum-seekers.
Critics, including King Norodom Sihanouk, have blamed the deportations on the government’s close ties with Hanoi.
“We have repeatedly reaffirmed that there is no political or religious oppression in Vietnam,” Nguyen Thanh Duc, press attache at the Vietnam Embassy, said Wednesday. The Montagnards in Ratanakkiri are economic migrants, he said.
Vietnamese persecution of the Montagnards has increased greatly since the April 10 and April 11 demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands, a Human Rights Watch official said Wednesday.
“We have documented numerous credible accounts of asylum-seekers beaten and/or jailed upon return to Vietnam,” the official said.
The official lauded the Cambodian government’s cooperation with UNHCR in providing food and shelter to 126 Montagnards who were hiding in the jungle and hoped it would continue to honor its Refugee Convention obligations.
“We hope that the government would allow enough time for proper screening of asylum claims by UNHCR,” the official said.
Plans by the UNHCR and local rights group Adhoc to travel to a number of other locations in Ratanakkiri province to receive a reported 100 Montagnard asylum-seekers were postponed Wednesday to allow the UN and government authorities register those who emerged on Tuesday.
Adhoc Provincial Coordinator Pen Bonnar said the postponement was called by Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun to allow UN and government officials rest for one day between the collection of asylum-seekers from difficult-to-access border regions.
Two more male Montagnard asylum-seekers who emerged from hiding on Wednesday morning on a hilltop on the outskirts of Banlung town were escorted to UNHCR’s former office in the provincial capital, one of two locations where more than 128 asylum-seekers are now being housed. Doctors from Phnom Penh also treated a male asylum-seeker for malaria Wednesday evening at the UNHCR’s former office site.
Three male asylum-seekers ranging in age from early 20s to 30 years old, and two children aged 5 and 7 years are currently being treated at Ratanakkiri Referral Hospital for suspected cases of malaria, typhoid and respiratory illness.
Siu Chiem, 7, who was initially identified as being 11-years old, and Rahlan Gai, 5, were admitted to the hospital on Tuesday night after they emerged with a group of 79 asylum-seekers who came out of hiding and presented themselves to UNHCR representatives and government authorities in O’Yadaw district.
Dr Gary Jacques, executive director of Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE flew to Banlung Wednesday morning to assist in the treatment of those emerging from the jungle. He said the three men and two children were in stable condition, though he was concerned over Siu Chiem’s lethargic state.
“Those are main things: Typhoid and malaria, other types of dysentery and upper respiratory illness,” said Jacques, whose hospital in Phnom Penh has had a long relationship with the provincial hospital in Banlung in advising difficult medical cases.
“[Siu Chiem] is still really lethargic and I think time will tell. They don’t need to be flown to Phnom Penh or something like that at this point. Probably just watch her another day and see if she rebounds,” he said after examining the five asylum-seekers.
On emerging from hiding, Siu Chiem’s father said his daughter had not eaten for nine days. She has eaten a small amount since she was admitted to the hospital, said Jacques. Her condition is stable.
“Now I don’t know if it is too soon to say, but my first impression for these people is that [doctors] certainly have intervened in time,” Jacques said.
Jacques and Rithy Chau, Sihanouk Hospital physician assistant, are scheduled to conduct medical checks on the remaining asylum-seekers Thursday morning. Many of them have complained of fever, headaches and stomach problems.
As Siu Chiem’s younger brother Siu Doan, 4, played at the end of the hospital bed where his sister lay hooked up to an intravenous drip on Wednesday, her 30-year-old father, who had remained the night at the hospital said: “She is still weak but a bit better.”
He thanked the international community for coming to his family’s assistance and bringing his daughter to hospital.
“My children were ailing from staying in the jungle for more than a month, now they are being treated in hospital. Thank you to everybody,” he said.
(Reporting by Daniel Ten Kate, Yun Samean, Phann Ana and Kevin Doyle)