Rights groups said yesterday that the government-ordered closure of a center run by the UN’s refugee agency in Phnom Penh would gravely threaten the safety of all Vietnamese Montagnards living there whose refugee status is yet to be determined.
In a letter dated Nov 29, the government ordered the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to close the center by Jan 1 and said that all asylum-seekers awaiting screening would be deported to Vietnam.
The order comes despite Cambodia having signed the 1951 UN refugee convention and passed a sub-decree in December last year, both of which prohibit repatriating asylum-seekers who face danger in their home country.
There are currently 76 Montagnards—largely Christian ethnic minorities from Vietnam’s highlands—living in the center.
UNHCR says 62 of them have been granted refugee status and are awaiting resettlement in a third country, while another 14 are still waiting to have their status determined. UNHCR has requested that the government extend the amount of time the agency has to resettle the 62 Montagnard refugees.
Rights groups say Montagnards who are repatriated could face persecution and imprisonment in Vietnam for carrying out religious activities inside Protestant churches that the government does not recognize.
The government often accuses Montagnards of advancing an anti-state political agenda, said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“UNHCR needs to rise to the challenge and forcefully defend its principles and its central role in protecting refugees,” he said. “Otherwise, what are they doing in Cambodia?”
Mr Robertson said that all Montagnards at the center who are not yet refugees should be allowed to be screened for refugee status, and that UNHCR must prevent them from being forced back to Vietnam.
“UNHCR must do everything it can to prevent these refugees from being refouled to Vietnam,” he said. “Let’s also be clear that the Cambodian government is being totally unreasonable in giving such short notice.”
He added that the US and other resettlement countries should “redouble their efforts to consider and accept these refugees.”
Mark Wenig, spokesman at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that in order for a Montagnard to be granted asylum in the US, he or she must be related to a Montagnard refugee in the US, who must file a resettlement petition within two years of arriving there. After two years, resettled refugees can still petition for their relatives using normal immigration procedures.
“The US Embassy is in close contact with UNHCR and is committed to resolution of any resettlement or immigration cases that may arise under applicable provisions of US immigration law,” he wrote.
Cambodia’s treatment of asylum-seekers has not always been exemplary. In December, the government deported 20 Uighur asylum-seekers to China before UNHCR could process their claims for refugee status.
Lian Yong, legal officer for Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, said that sending the Montagnards back to Vietnam would open them up to possible criminal charges for having crossed into Cambodia illegally.
“In Vietnam, there is still a criminal charge for leaving the country illegally,” she said. “There are still issues of persecution in Vietnam.”
Ms Yong said that if the center shut down, the treatment of Montagnards in Cambodia would revert to the situation in 2005, when many Montagnards were sent back to Vietnam.
“There is a need [for the center] in the sense that they’re not welcome in Cambodia. It’s kind of the only solution. They don’t want to go back to Vietnam.”
On Tuesday, Release International, an organization that assists persecuted Christians around the world, reported that Nguyen Hong Quang, a Montagnard pastor who leads the Mennonite Church in Vietnam and was jailed in 2004, was beaten unconscious at his school in Ho Chi Minh City.
“At 7 am Vietnamese time, about 500 police, soldiers and fire officers arrived with bulldozers at the pastor’s school in the city’s District 2 and proceeded to demolish the property,” Release International said in a statement.
Twenty students from the school were also reportedly arrested and interrogated, the organization said.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that the government had not yet decided whether to allow UNHCR more time to resettle the 62 refugees currently residing at the center.
“We will make [the decision] soon,” he said.
Mr Kuong said that the center was only ever meant to be temporary and that the time had come for the government to implement its own law.
Asked if the government would take on the responsibility of determining refugee status of Montagnards, he said, “We have to apply our law. We try to do as possible.”
He added that the government would not impede on other work being carried out by UNHCR in Cambodia.
Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Asia, said that the government had government had given no indication of whether or not the agency would be allowed an extension on its work in Cambodia.
She declined to elaborate on what the disappearance of the center would mean for the work of UNHCR in Cambodia. However, she pointed out that Cambodia had passed a sub-decree in December last year that outlines the necessary procedures for the government to determine the refugee status of asylum-seekers in their countries.
“They are national procedures in accordance with the refugee convention,” she said. The government “is not asking our whole operations to leave.”
The issue of Vietnamese Montagnards in Cambodia goes back many years. In 1992, UN forces discovered hundreds of Montagnard resistance fighters in the forest in Mondolkiri province. All 398 of them were given permanent residence in the US, starting the first Montagnard community in North Carolina.
In 2001, Montagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam started to arrive in Cambodia in packs of about 60 until there were about 1,000 of them seeking refuge in Phnom Penh. It was at this point that UNHCR set up three centers to assist Montagnards with refugee status, those awaiting deportation and those with particularly difficult cases.
Human Rights Watch believes there are about 300 Montagnards in prison in Vietnam for peaceful expression of their religious and political beliefs, making up one of the largest populations of political prisoners.
The organization also accuses Vietnamese government officials of forcing Montagnard Christians to renounce their religion and make public confessions of wrongdoing.