Almost a year since the latest wave of Montagnards began arriving in the country, claiming to be fleeing persecution in Vietnam, the Interior Ministry said on Friday that all but 13 of them have been given three months to return home or face forced repatriation.
Last month, the U.N. said that more than 200 Montagnards were in the capital waiting for their asylum applications to be registered by the Interior Ministry’s refugee department. However, the government, which granted refugee status to 13 Montagnards in March, has refused to process further claims.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the ministry has decided that the remaining asylum seekers are illegal immigrants, and would ensure that they are returned to Vietnam.
“Some of them are here legally…and we are forwarding the proposal to the UNHCR office to find a third country for their resettlement, only for the 13,” General Sopheak said, referring to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
“As for the other nearly 100, we do not recognize that they are Montagnards because they have illegally infiltrated into Cambodia and we have proposed the UNHCR repatriate those Montagnards back to their hometowns,” he said.
Asked if he was referring to the entire group of unregistered Montagnards in Phnom Penh, which the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia has said includes at least 219 asylum seekers, Gen. Sopheak said he was.
“We are a sovereign state so those people who came to Cambodia illegally…we ask them please go back in three months,” he said. “After three months we will implement the law.”
The Montagnards—an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—began arriving in Ratanakkiri province in October, claiming that they were facing increased religious and political persecution at the hands of Hanoi.
At least 47 Montagnards who have crossed into Cambodia in the past 10 months have already been arrested and returned to Vietnam.
Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, condemned the government’s decision to send the rest of the asylum seekers back to Vietnam and said she expected the U.N. to do the same.
“There are more than 200 asylum seekers from the Montagnard areas in Vietnam. Some of them have suffered imprisonment, beatings [in Vietnam]. Many have been asked with force to sign that they will not practise their religion,” Ms. Coghlan said in an email.
“Cambodia must agree to register them and assess their cases. The UNHCR will surely condemn this gross violation of the Refugee Convention,” she said.
Neither the UNHCR or the OHCHR responded to requests for comment.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the government’s decision “outrageous” and also accused Cambodia of shirking its responsibilities under international law.
“It’s outrageous that Cambodia thinks it can just force the Montagnards back into harm’s way in Vietnam and no one will do anything about it,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“Quite clearly, Cambodia is not serious about implementing the Refugee Convention in the non-discriminatory way and they urgently need to be called out on that, and pressured to change policy.”