UN Moves to Transfer Refugee Responsibility to Cambodians

The first draft of a sub-decree on procedures for screening asylum-seekers in Cambodia was recently completed, as part of the transfer of refugee responsibilities from UN officials to Cam­bodian police, law enforcement and UN officials said Wednesday.

The UN, however, will continue to handle cases of Montag­nard ethnic minorities fleeing from neighboring Vietnam.

National Police spokesman Ket Chantharith said the Ministry of Interior’s National Police Depart­ment had completed a draft of the sub-decree in March, which complied with the 1951 Refugee Con­vention. He said the department had consulted the UN High Com­missioner for Refugees and NGOs on the new sub-decree and added it was now at the ministry waiting for review by legal experts.

In 1992, Cambodia signed the Refugee Convention and it delegated the asylum responsibilities to the UNHCR, which has taken care of asylum requests, as the government did not have the capacity and legal framework to conduct asylum procedures, UNHCR protection officer Toshi Kawauchi said Wed­nesday.

The development of the sub-decree was part of the transition of handing these responsibilities back to the government, which was getting increasingly more capable of dealing with asylum requests, Kawauchi said.

The UNHCR will work closely with Cambodian immigration officers, he said, adding his office will continue to deal with requests by Montagnards as part of a 2005 Memo­randum of Understanding between the UNHCR, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Kawauchi said the new sub-decree was “a very positive development,” and Cambodia is trying to be regional leader in the field of refugee rights, adding that it is only one of two countries in the Asean region that has signed the Refugee Convention.

Nick Henderson, legal officer for the Jesuit Refugee Services, said he could not comment of the sub-decree as he has not yet seen it, adding that JRS had requested a copy from the Ministry of Interior.

“We hope the law will provide protection and the rights that will enable refugees to lead a meaningful life in Cambodia,” he said.

Henderson said he also hoped that under the sub-decree issues surrounding asylum procedures for Montagnards and Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmers living in Vietnam, people would be resolved.

Currently, Montagnards are held in detention centers until their asylum requests are completed, according to Henderson. “There should be a presumption of liberty [on arrival],” he added.

Khmer Krom can only apply for Cambodian citizenship and not for refugee status, which is a disadvantage as they are at risk of corruption and denial of their citizenship request, he said.

“They should be given a claim for protection…because they are at risk of persecution in Vietnam,” Hende­rson said of the Khmer Krom.

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