About 100 Montagnards protested at a UN High Commissioner for Refugees asylum-seeker processing center in Phnom Penh against the deportation to Vietnam Friday morning of another 27 Montagnards whose applications for refugee status had been rejected.
More than 30 anti-riot police and military police, armed with AK-47s, shields and electric batons sealed off roads leading to Street 548 where the protest took place from around 5:30 am.
One protestor, who asked to remain anonymous, said the protestors had decided to go back indoors around 9 am due to fears that police were about to attack them.
“If we don’t go back inside they will use force,” he said, adding that the protestors, who had chanted “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom” in Khmer, Jarai and English, were concerned over what would happen to the deportees on their return to Vietnam.
Sarah Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who witnessed the incident, described it as “unprecedented public protest by Montagnards refugees and asylum seekers who are being kept in UNHCR camps that are essentially closed sites.”
“When the cases are rejected, they have no access to independent legal counsel,” she said. “Many are terrified at the prospect of returning to Vietnam.”
Police at the site displayed restraint but did seem ready to use force, she added, describing how at one point while negotiations were taking place between UNHCR and Cambodian officials, police lined up in formation and began testing their electric batons.
Rights workers at the scene claimed that a lack of transparency in the refugee application process was leading to increased frustration by those within the processing centers. Chheng Sophors, an investigator for local rights group Licadho, said the fact that the deportations had not been made public had helped aggravate the situation.
“The deportation was a secret, that’s a problem,” he said.
A UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman on Wednesday would not confirm that any deportations were to take place this week, referring questions to the Interior Ministry, representatives of which would not comment Wednesday and Thursday.
Representatives at the UNHCR did not return repeated calls for comment Friday afternoon.
Contacted Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said he was unaware of the protest and referred further questions to Deputy National Police Commissioner Sok Phal, who could not be reached.
Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam said he was aware of the deportation, adding that 10 more people are due to be returned to Vietnam before the end of the month.
Trinh Ba Cam rejected the notion that any deportees would be badly treated in Vietnam.
“That [claim] is just people twisting the truth to make political gains,” he said.