Representatives of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees on Monday began interviewing 24 ethnic minority members believed to be seeking asylum from Vietnam, as the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said it is prepared to resettle in the US members of the group referred by the UN body.
Vietnamese Ambassador to Cambodia Nguyen Duy Hung accused the US of interfering in its internal affairs and encouraging illegal immigration to Cambodia.
The Cambodian government initially had not allowed the UN access to the detainees, whom Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week would be deported back to Vietnam. Rights workers, in turn, criticized the government for not standing by its international obligations to refugees.
John Farvolden, acting director of the UNHCR’s Cambodian office, said access to the detainees was granted Saturday and formal interviewing began Monday at Military Police Headquarters in Phnom Penh to determine if the 24 are seeking asylum.
Farvolden said results of the determination won’t be made public. “This part of the process is completely confidential,” he said.
The US embassy issued a public appeal Monday calling on the Cambodian government to respect the “humanitarian interests” of the detainees, described as members of Vietnam’s Montagnard hill tribe.
The statement said the embassy is prepared to resettle the group in the US if the UN determines its members are refugees and in need of protection.
The 24 were arrested last month in Mondolkiri province for illegally entering Cambodia. They told police they had fled to Cambodia following the ongoing unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
According to provincial officials, the 24 said they are seeking asylum from Vietnam where they fear persecution from the government.
Nguyen Duy Hung said his government will re-appeal to Cambodian officials to have the group returned to Vietnam.
He said the US is “interfering in its internal affairs” and said the US offer “will encourage illegal departure to Cambodia.”
“The US always says it is against illegal immigration. So why are they doing this?” Nguyen Duy Hung said. He said Hanoi has not formally responded to the US offer to resettle the 24 detainees, but said a response is expected.
“The position of our government is clear,” he said. “The 24 illegally crossed the border and should be returned.”
Nguyen Duy Hung also refuted claims of oppression in the Central Highlands.
A senior Cambodian government official said granting asylum to the 24 and resettling them in the US could cause a wave of similar asylum seekers in Cambodia.
“If they will be received by another country, then maybe more and more will come,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Farvolden said fears of more refugees following the 24 out of Vietnam are “pure speculation.”
“Our job is to assess the claims of asylum seekers and if they are determined to be refugees, our job is to find a durable solution to the situation,” he said.
The issue was also discussed Monday at a senior level meeting of the Interior Ministry. No firm plan, other than trying the 24 in court for illegally entering Cambodia, has been adopted by the government, a senior interior official said, on condition of anonymity.
The government is still negotiating with both the international community and Vietnam on how to solve the issue amicably for both sides, the official said.
“It is hard for us to carry both sides. If we are obliged to follow international law, we will do wrong to our neighboring country. And if we are obliged to assist our neighboring country, we do wrong by international law,” he said.
“We want to do what is in the interests of Cambodia, our neighboring country and the international community,” he said. “We will try to find a middle point to finalize this issue.”
The official said the outcome of the meeting will be sent to the prime minister for approval.
A military police official said the 24, who have been detained at Military Police Headquarters since last week, are from Vietnam’s ethnic tribes and do not speak Vietnamese fluently.
They are also experiencing difficulty in captivity.
Four of the group are sick with fever and headaches, and one more is showing symptoms of malaria and is on an intravenous drip.
“I pity them because they escaped from fear in their own country. They said that they dare not go back because they are worried about their treatment. They want to stay here or other countries,” the official said.
(Reporting by Seth Meixner, Thet Sambath and Kevin Doyle)