The government will allow 905 Montagnards currently under UN protection in Cambodia to seek asylum in the US, potentially ending a yearlong refugee problem that has strained relations between Cambodia and Vietnam, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Sunday.
While the US has pushed resettlement as a serious option for the Montagnards, the Vietnamese have demanded all asylum seekers be sent back to Vietnam, creating a “heavy headache” for Cambodia, Hun Sen said.
Cambodia “is like a football field where Vietnam and the US are the players,” the premier said in address in Kandal province carried by Bayon radio.
Those Montagnards who do not want to go to a third country will have to return to Vietnam within the next few weeks, though, Hun Sen said.
“They must do so and Cambodia will finally close the camps. They cannot choose to live in Cambodia forever,” he said.
The refugees have been living in camps run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces. The UNHCR initially said repatriation to Vietnam was the best option for the Montagnards. But the UN agency abandoned a repatriation agreement signed with Cambodia and Vietnam last month, saying it was dissatisfied with the access Vietnam gave UNHCR to the returnees’ villages.
The Vietnamese have opposed any third-country resettlement efforts. As late as Saturday night, Hun Sen was meeting with a high-level delegation from Vietnam’s foreign ministry, sources said.
In an apparent acknowledgment of Vietnam’s resistance to losing the Montagnards, Hun Sen said in his address the Cambodian border would now be closed to future asylum seekers.
“I appeal to the authorities to cooperate with the Vietnamese to prevent the flow of more Vietnamese into Cambodia,” he said. “If there are new Vietnamese who enter Cambodia illegally, we will deport them through our immigration laws.”
Observers have warned third-country resettlement of these Montagnards may tempt more Montagnards to flee to Cambodia. One local police officer said Montagnards are already on the border.
“They know the way, and if they want to come they will,” the police officer said.
The possibility of large numbers of Montagnards crossing into Cambodia in the future was not discussed during talks with Hun Sen Sunday morning, US ambassador Kent Wiedemann said.
“Our focus was really on these particular people; that was what we had on the immediate plate,” the ambassador said. “This is welcomed by us as a solid indication of Cambodia’s determination to stand by international humanitarian standards.”
A majority of the Montagnards who accept resettlement are likely to go to the US, Wiedemann said. The US resettled 38 Montagnards last year, drawing heavy criticism from Vietnam and starting a political battle that has continued for the past year.
“This conflict between Vietnam and the United States has created difficulty for Cambodia,” Hun Sen said.
The details are still being worked out on how the Montagnards will be moved from the remote UNHCR camps to Phnom Penh, Wiedemann said. He said the moves will be made soon, especially in light of recent security problems at the Mondolkiri UNHCR camp.