The government is planning to create a new system to deal with asylum seekers, Hasim Utkan, regional representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said after meeting with co- Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and other government officials at the Interior Ministry on Wednesday afternoon.
The meeting on Wednesday stemmed from an agreement reached at a Sept 8 meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior Geneva-based UN officials that called for the government to set up a department that would hear claims for asylum and judge whether to give them refugee status, Utkan said.
More than 1,000 Montagnard asylum seekers fled to Cambodia in 2001 following a crackdown on demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The US resettled about 900 refugees in 2002 after the Cambodian government sealed the Vietnam border and ordered two UN refugee camps closed. Since then, Montagnard asylum seekers have hidden in the jungle along the border, fearing capture by police, who, human rights groups allege, have captured and sold them to Vietnamese authorities for cash bounties.
UN officials also asked the government to draft a law for asylum seekers so it would be easy to determine who qualifies for refugee status, according to a source who attended Wednesday’s meeting. Sar Kheng said he would consider it, the source said.
The law would be based on the UN Convention on Refugees, of which Cambodia is a signatory, UN officials said.
“What is important is not to just be party to the convention, but to comply with it,” Utkan said after the meeting.
The new asylum seeker body will help accomplish compliance to the convention, he said. “But that doesn’t mean the UNHCR will wash its hands and leave everything to the authorities.”
The UN will provide oversight on the asylum seeker system, the terms of which are still being negotiated, Utkan added.
Sar Kheng was not available for comment after the meeting.
A Human Rights Watch representative reached Wednesday night welcomed the initiative, but expressed caution. “The unit should not simply continue the current negative trend, which is to define Montagnard asylum seekers in the provinces as illegal immigrants and deport them,” the representative said.