The government said yesterday it would no longer respect a memorandum of understanding signed between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UN’s refugee agency that determines how Vietnamese Montagnard asylum-seekers and refugees are assessed, resettled and repatriated.
Under the terms of the MoU signed in 2005, Montagnards who had arrived in Cambodia and were recognized as refugees could either be resettled to a third country or returned to Vietnam. Vietnam guaranteed that Montagnards would not be punished, discriminated against or prosecuted for illegal departure.
“The MoU is only valid until the closing down of the center,” said Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “When we close down the center the MoU is finished.”
In a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees sent on Nov 29, the government ordered UNHCR to shutter its Phnom Penh refugee center by Jan 1. That date has now been postponed until Feb 15 to allow more time to resettle the 62 refugees living there.
The government also ordered the deportation of 14 Montagnard asylum-seekers whose refugee status has not yet been determined.
Mr Kuong said the government would continue to assess the status of newly arrived Montagnard asylum-seekers using the immigration law and a 2009 sub-decree on refugees. He also said that the 2005 MoU only applied to 750 Montagnards who were in Cambodia at that time.
Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR, said that up until now UNHCR has determined the refugee status of Montagnards under the 2005 MoU, even after most of those responsibilities shifted to the government in December 2009, when the sub-decree was signed. But that is all set to change.
“UNHCR still has a role to play in Cambodia in helping the Cambodian government build its capacity to live up to its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention,” Ms McKinsey wrote in an e-mail.
She said that there was no reason to believe that any of the 14 Montagnard asylum-seekers would be deported against their will.
“[I]n the past, failed asylum-seekers have sometimes agreed to go back to Viet Nam voluntarily,” she wrote.
Andrew Swan, program manager for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, wrote in an e-mail that it remains to be seen whether Cambodia is able to implement its law on refugees without being influenced by countries like Vietnam and China.
“Cambodia needs to demonstrate that it has the political independence to be a free actor when it is handling asylum cases, [and] secondly, Cambodia’s allies must stand firm behind Phnom Penh when an asylum case presents the country with a politically sensitive question,” he wrote.