UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht said on Friday he had credible information that Montagnards in the northeastern provinces have been deported “very recently” and expressed misgiving at the UN refugee agency’s plan to hand over asylum determination to government authorities.
“I had a very frank discussion with the [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] representative in Cambodia,” Leuprecht told a press conference. “I expressed my skepticism with regard to the idea of handing over the asylum process to the Cambodian authorities.”
Senior UNHCR officials and Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed at a Sept 8 meeting to set up an internal government body that would hear claims for asylum and judge whether to grant refugee status.
Consistent with the recent deportations reported by Leuprecht and another human rights group this week, the government’s ongoing policy is to regard Montagnards as illegal immigrants.
Leuprecht said he told Nikola Mihajlovic, the UNHCR’s Cambodia representative, that the timing of UNHCR’s initiative to create the body was particularly unfortunate.
“If the same initiative had been taken at the time when Cambodia honored its commitments under the refugee convention, it would be a different story,” Leuprecht said.
Mihajlovic could not be contacted for comment.
Under the UN refugee convention, government authorities should not deport asylum seekers without first determining their status, Leuprecht said. To qualify for refugee status, asylum seekers must have a justified fear of persecution.
“I have reason to believe people in [Vietnam’s Central] Highlands have a justified fear of persecution,” Leuprecht said.
Human rights groups are also skeptical of the UNHCR’s plans to set up an asylum processing department in the government.
“We are very concerned that the government may have been deporting people during the very process of negotiating with the UNHCR,” said a Human Rights Watch representative, who added that the organization has not yet confirmed the deportations.
Montagnards have a difficult time reaching Phnom Penh from remote border areas of Vietnam, Leuprecht said, adding: “I don’t need to paint a picture, but bilateral relationships negatively affect the way asylum seekers are treated.”
The human rights envoy said that he will continue to speak about the plight of the Montagnards as long as the problem exists.
“I expressed my high degree of skepticism,” Leuprecht said. “But I don’t know whether I will be heard.”