The government has forcibly deported at least 89 Montagnards from Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces in recent weeks, despite recent high-level promises to a UN official that asylum seekers would not be expelled, an international human rights groups said in a report issued Sunday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called for an investigation of provincial officials who allegedly carried out the deportations. The report stated that “the deportations show that policies publicly announced in Phnom Penh are not being implemented in the provinces.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Director General of National Police Chief Hok Lundy have all made promises that asylum seekers will receive protection from Cambodian authorities.
In separate meetings last week, Hok Lundy and Sar Kheng, who is also co-Minister of Interior, personally assured UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative Jahanshah Assadi that Montagnard asylum seekers would not be returned to Vietnam.
“Apparently this has not been transmitted to the provincial levels yet,” Assadi said Sunday before he left Cambodia.
Assadi, who just returned from a two-day trip to Mondolkiri, said there appears to have been “difficulties…as far as the provincial authorities having received proper instructions from the capital.”
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Sunday that the government has not yet received information about arrests and deportations of Montagnard asylum seekers.
“If they were arrested and sent back, that is not wrong according to immigration law,” he said. “Even if Human Rights Watch officials came to Cambodia without a visa and passport, they would be arrested and sent back.”
The Human Rights Watch report said that 70 people have been expelled in the last 10 days. It noted that the most recent deportations, which occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday, were set in motion as Assadi and Hok Lundy met in Phnom Penh Tuesday to discuss the asylum seekers.
“That very day,” the report stated, “Cambodian police officials in Ratanakkiri transported 63 ethnic Jarai in two groups to the Vietnam border, where they were subsequently deported.”
Assadi said Sunday that he talked to Hok Lundy about one group of 49 Jarai “whom we had on that day heard about.” He said he received the “unfortunate” news Tuesday evening that the group had been deported from Ratanakkiri.
He added that UNHCR staff in Ratanakkiri are investigating the deportation of the 63 Jarai.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, Ratanakkiri provincial officials told UN staff and human rights workers that they were aware of the deportations, but said it was the responsibility of immigration police.
The Ratanakkiri provincial police commissioner told rights workers that he was carrying out an order received several years ago by the central government to deport any individuals who enter the country illegally, the report stated.
Sources at the refugee camp near Sen Monorom said Sunday that two more Montagnard asylum seekers were arrested and deported from Mondolkiri province to Vietnam Saturday.
There are unconfirmed reports that there are still numerous people hiding in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces. Despite Assadi’s visit and official assurances of protection, the 160 asylum seekers in the camp five km outside of Sen Monorom remain nervous about what treatment they can expect from provincial authorities.
There were no new admissions to the camp over the weekend.
Human Rights Watch also urged Vietnam to publicize the whereabouts and conditions of the 89 deported people. It said Vietnam should allow the UNHCR access to the Central Highland region, where protests by indigenous minorities over land and religion have been occurring since at least February, “to help address the root causes of the refugee flows.”
Assadi returned from Mondolkiri late Saturday night after a morning meeting with provincial Governor Tor Soeuth, the chief of police and border police, immigration and military police officials.
“The governor said…we’d like to have an open and transparent relationship with [the UNHCR],” Assadi said. “And he used the word ‘transparent.’ So I hope things will start to get better.”
Asked about how much faith he has that provincial officials will cooperate fully with UNHCR officials and carry out orders from the central government, Assadi said, “I have to be confident. I have no other choice.
“I don’t have any reason to think that Cambodia, which has had a long tradition of knowing what refugees and returnees are all about, and also being a party to the UN convention on refugees, will not continue to implement this publicly stated humanitarian approach,” he said.
Assadi, who is based in Bangkok, said he will return to Cambodia “as necessary.”
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dzung said Thursday in Hanoi that Vietnam and Cambodia must work together to solve the problem of Montagnards crossing the border into Cambodia to seek asylum.
“Vietnam and Cambodia will coordinate their efforts to solve the problems that have cropped up on the border, in accordance with the two countries’ interests and existing agreements,” he was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.
According to AFP, Dzung said Vietnam had “no more concrete information on the number of Vietnamese who have crossed the border and entered Cambodia illegally.”
Responding to Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung’s remark Thursday that there are no refugees from Vietnam in Cambodia, Assadi said Saturday that “terminology is not as important as treatment.”
He said the UNHCR has not requested a meeting with Vietnamese officials, but noted that the UNHCR has an office in Hanoi.
“If they wish to have our cooperation, our cooperation would be extended,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle and Seth Meixner in Sen Monorom)