Less than a month after the government announced that more than 170 Montagnard asylum seekers would have their refugee applications processed, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Wednesday that the group had not met the criteria for refugee status and would be returned to Vietnam.
However, a refugee advocate and spokeswoman for the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) refuted the claim, saying the registration process for the group had not even started.
“We interviewed them, and if they failed the interview we will send them back to Vietnam. And so far, we know most of them have failed because they entered [Cambodia] illegally,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told reporters on the sidelines of an event in Phnom Penh.
“They came through the forest and traffickers brought them.”
After initially indicating that some of the asylum seekers had not yet been interviewed, General Sopheak went on to say that the entire group would be returned to Vietnam, where they claim to have been subjected to abuse and harassment for their religious and cultural practices.
“In fact, they all failed the evaluation,” Gen. Sopheak said, adding that the group would be handed over to Vietnamese authorities soon.
“We will not keep them for long,” he said.
On January 20, following a meeting between Interior Minister Sar Kheng and James Lynch, the regional representative for the UNHCR, the government announced that the Montagnards, who had for months been blocked from registering as refugees, would have their claims assessed.
Both Denise Coughlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, and Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, said on Wednesday that the registration process had not even begun.
“Not a single one of the refugees have been registered or interviewed yet, so I don’t know where that is coming from,” Ms. Coughlan said of Gen. Sopheak’s comments.
“There was the meeting with the UNHCR and the ministry, and he wasn’t even there,” she said. “Maybe it’s for public consumption, [for the sake of] the Vietnamese. Who knows? He often says crazy things.”
Ms. Tan also said she was confused by the remarks.
“Not sure where this is coming from. I understand that registration hasn’t started yet,” she said in an email.
Since a new wave of Montagnards began crossing into Cambodia in October 2014 with stories of persecution at the hands of authorities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, many Cambodian officials have refused to acknowledge that the asylum seekers may have legitimate reasons to fear returning to their home country.
Gen. Sopheak has consistently characterized the Montagnards as illegal immigrants who should be sent back across the border.
Most Montagnards observe a form of Protestantism that Vietnamese authorities have outlawed. During a violent crackdown on Montagnard churches between 2001 and 2011, thousands sought asylum in Cambodia. While some eventually made it to the U.S., most were forcibly repatriated to Vietnam, where they reportedly faced imprisonment and torture.