The UN refugee agency on Tuesday ended its silence over the disappearance of three high-profile asylum seekers, criticizing the government for failing to safeguard people protected by international law.
Falun Gong practitioners Li Guojun and his wife, Zhang Xinyi, were arrested by Cambodian police Aug 2 and reportedly deported back to China, despite possessing “persons of concern” documents from the UN.
The couple were snatched one week after the disappearance from Phnom Penh of Thich Tri Luc, a dissident Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who was recognized as a refugee by the Cambodia office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“[The UNHCR] has formally protested to the Cambodian authorities the reported deportation of two Chinese Falun Gong practitioners and the disappearance of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk,” the UNHCR said in a statement from Geneva.
“Under international law, such persons are to be safeguarded from being sent back to their country of origin,” the refugee agency’s spokesman, Kris Janowski, said.
Janowski said UNHCR staff in Phnom Penh made repeated attempts to have the arrested Falun Gong practitioners released from police custody in Phnom Penh. The UN fears that the Thich Tri Luc was deported back to Vietnam after his disappearance from Phnom Penh, he said.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has brought the disappearances to the attention of “the highest levels and requested clarification,” Janowski said.
UK-based Amnesty International added its voice to the chorus of criticism this week, saying it was “gravely concerned” that asylum seekers were forcibly returned “to a country where they would be at grave risk of serious human right violations.”
The disappearances of the three asylum seekers was expected to be raised during discussions between Prime Minister Hun Sen and visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.
Also expected for discussion during their meeting Wednesday was Cambodia’s treatment of over 1,000 ethnic minority hill tribe people from Vietnam who fled to Cambodia after Hanoi launched a military crackdown in the Central Highlands early last year.
Phnom Penh agreed in April to allow Washington to resettle the 906 Montagnard refugees in the US but announced shortly after that the country’s borders were sealed to news asylum seekers.
Human rights groups welcomed the refugees’ resettlement, but blasted Phnom Penh’s forced deportation of hundreds of Montagnards back to Vietnam.