The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has abandoned a repatriation agreement signed with Cambodia and Vietnam for the return of almost 1,000 Montagnard asylum seekers under the agency’s protection in Cambodia.
Letters sent to the foreign ministries of Cambodia and Vietnam Friday announced the agency’s pullout, UNHCR Phnom Penh chief Nikola Mihajlovic said Sunday.
“UNHCR cannot be a part of a process that no longer conforms to its standards. We are left with no choice,” Mihajlovic said. “There was a string of many events that were basically not positive. A line was crossed, and we have to take a stand on the matter.”
Late last week, UNHCR staff claimed they were threatened and “manhandled” when nearly 450 Vietnamese were bused into the UNHCR’s refugee camp in Mondolkiri province.
The Vietnamese were said to be family members of those staying in the camp, and Cambodian police officials said they wanted to check on their relatives.
But others, including the UNHCR, say the visits were meant to force asylum seekers to return, and many of the Vietnamese visitors said they were coerced into coming to Cambodia.
“You have the tension, the coercion, the threats of our staff—all of these things. Overall, the situation is not condusive to repatriation in line with international standards,” Mihajlovic said.
The UNHCR’s decision effectively kills a repatriation agreement that was already failing. The agency earlier suspended all repatriations after Vietnamese authorities refused UNHCR monitors access to Vietnam’s Central Highlands to observe the return of asylum seekers.
Fifteen Montagnards returned home before repatriations were suspended. Another130 have since returned voluntarily to Vietnam without UNHCR’s assistance.
Since the Jan 21 repatriation agreement was signed, nearly 100 Montegnards have been forcibly deported before they could reach the UNHCR camps, which observers say clearly violates an international refugee convention signed by Cambodia in 1951.
Mihajlovic said the UNHCR will now begin focusing on asylum for the 935 Montagnards remaining under its protection in camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, but said it is too early to say if resettlement in a third country is a viable option.
Since Montagnards began fleeing into Cambodia a year ago, at least 38 asylum seekers have been resettled in the US, which has remained a vocal critic of the the handling of the refugee situation.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Sunday the embassy has personnel at the UNHCR’s camps, including a US State Department refugee officer, to “review the situation on the ground.”
“Right now [repatriation] is not an option,” Wiedemann said, though he also maintained resettlement is not an immediate solution for the Montagnards, either.
“Our first concern is that the asylum seekers are getting the protection they need,” he said.
Observers say they are concerned about how UNHCR’s pullout will be interpreted by Cambodia and Vietnam.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said it fears the Montagnards “are at risk of being forcibly returned to Vietnam, where their lives or their freedom would be threatened.”
Both Wiedemann and Mihajlovic said they expect the Cambodian government to remain committed to protecting the Montagnards under UNHCR’s care.
“Clearly, the US will hold Cambodia to those assurances,” Wiedemann said.
Mihajlovic said Sunday he has not received any response yet from the Cambodians to the agency’s decision, but said he hoped the government understands the long-term ramifications of not supporting the agency’s efforts.
“The international community—the donors— are all very much behind” the UNHCR, he said.
Cambodian deputy prime minister Sar Kheng told Reuters Saturday he was not aware of the UNHCR’s decision, but said that if it were true, “It concerns me. This problem will be endless.”
Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh, while saying they would allow the UNHCR to process asylum seekers, have said they fear even more Montegnards will come from Vietnam, and thus want a quick resolution to the situation.
(Additional reporting by Associated Press)
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