The 24 ethnic Vietnamese minorities in Cambodian custody have been granted refugee status by the UN, according to a US Embassy statement released Monday, but an embassy official said this doesn’t guarantee passage to the US.
On Monday representatives of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees finished questioning the group and told US officials they are all refugees and should be referred to the US for resettlement. US officials will have their first contact with the 24 today, as they begin interviews to determine whether the group’s members, who were arrested in Cambodia after fleeing unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, qualify for resettlement.
“They need to qualify under US immigration laws; there are medical questions and other types of things they go through,” the diplomat said. [The UNHCR decision] “was an important step, but there still has to be a decision by [the US] Immigration and Naturalization Services.”
If for some reason any of the group is rejected by the US, “they remain UNHCR wards to do with what it likes. The UNHCR has to make a determination whether to look for another third country, keep them in Cambodia or repatriate them,” the diplomat said.
John Farvolden, UNHCR’s acting director, would not comment Monday, only saying that the UNHCR’s work with the 24 was mostly finished.
The 24, arrested late last month in Mondolkiri province, have become the focus of increasingly hostile complaints by the Vietnamese government, which has demanded their return.
“These people are not refugees, they are illegal border crossers,” Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung said Monday. “Of course we will talk with UNHCR and ask them on what basis they consider them refugees.”
Nguyen Duy Hung questioned why the US made the announcement. “The US is trying to politicize this issue, if they continue this they will destabilize the situation on the border as they encourage more people to flee,” he said.
Farvolden said UNHCR had received information about more border crossings, but that information has not panned out. Cambodian authorities reported earlier the 24 had told them of at least 1,000 more potential refugees hiding in Mondolkiri.
A foreign medical worker based in the provincial capital of Senmonorom said Monday that hill tribes in that area are aware of the US’s decision to offer resettlement to the 24, but this has not yet caused any visible movement of large numbers of people.