Less than two weeks before a UN refugee center in Phnom Penh, currently home to 76 Vietnamese Montagnard asylum seekers, is scheduled to be shut down, a government official said yesterday that all new Montagnard asylum seekers entering Cambodia from Vietnam would be deported back from where they came.
Rights workers said that such treatment would violate the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Cambodia has ratified.
“Montagnards should not come here again,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. “If they come, we will implement our immigration law.”
“We will send them back the way they came,” he said, adding that if they arrive in Cambodia there would be no shelter or food for them to survive.
In a letter dated Nov 29, the government ordered the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to close the center in Phnom Penh by Jan 1 and said that all asylum-seekers awaiting screening would be deported back to Vietnam.
However, after UN officials expressed the need for more time to resettle the Montagnards—who originate in Vietnam’s central highlands and are largely Christian—with refugee status, the government allowed the center to stay on until Feb 15.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday that the agency had reached a solution for nearly all Montagnards residing at the center for resettlement in either the US or Canada.
“We are working on a solution for everybody at this time,” said Andrej Mahecic, senior communications officer for UNHCR in Geneva.
Mr Mahecic said it was too early to comment on how many from the 76 Montagnards currently at the center would be resettled as many cases were still being processed. Prior to the government’s order, 62 of the Montagnards had already acquired refugee status.
Rights workers say that the closing of the UN refugee center in Phnom Penh will mean less protection for any new Montagnards arriving in Cambodia.
“Without the refugee center in place in Cambodia, there is a very real concern that the next wave of Montagnards that flees in Cambodia, trying to escape persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government, might not be received by the Cambodian government,” said Phil Robertson deputy director of the Asia division for Human Rights Group, in an e-mail.
“If such a group were forced back by the Cambodian government without first going through a fair and impartial refugee screening process [which UNHCR should play a key role in], that could constitute a serious breach of Cambodia’s obligations as a country that has ratified the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol,” he added.
Mark Wenig, spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, declined comment yesterday on how many Montagnards had been granted asylum in the US and when they would depart, though he did confirm that some who have refugee status would be granted asylum in the US.
“Once the visas are issued and several routine administrative requirements are met, they will be free to travel to the US,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They will be met by family members there who sponsored their entry into the US.”
Toshi Kawauchi, head of the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh, said the shutting down of the refugee center on Feb 15 would not detract from the agency’s efforts in assisting the government with technical assistance in future cases.
“If any Montagnards come after the closure, for example, then these cases, in UNHCR’s point of view, should be treated as any other asylum seeker from other countries,” Mr Kawauchi said.
“Cambodian is going through a very important period in establishing functional refugee assistance,” he said. “It is very important that we continue to work closely with the government.”
The issue of Vietnamese Montagnards in Cambodia goes back many years.
In 2001, Montagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam began arriving in Cambodia in packs of about 60, until there were about 1,000 of them seeking refuge in Phnom Penh.