The head of Phnom Penh’ s UN refugee office criticized the government’s heightened security along the northeast border on Monday and called allegations that his office was involved in smuggling Montagnards from Vietnam to Cambodia “absolutely baseless.”
“For a host country who signed the [1954 Refugee Convention], they can’t seal off the border,” Nikola Mihajlovic, country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Monday.
Authorities in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces ordered police and soldiers on Sunday to stand guard over the Khmer New Year and increase border patrols. Reports of “violent protests” in Vietnam’s Central Highlands over the Easter weekend have led to fears that Montagnards will stream across the border just as they did following protests in 2001.
Fifty-nine Montagnards have arrived at the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh office since the beginning of the year, Mihajlovic said. Thirty-eight came to the office last year, more than half of whom have already been resettled in the US.
“Numbers don’t mean much,” Mihajlovic said. “We don’t know how many cross the border and don’t reach us.”
Ministry of Interior documents obtained last week accused the UNHCR of trafficking Montagnards from Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri to Phnom Penh with the help of human rights and Christian groups. They accused the UNHCR of secretly moving 46 Montagnards after refugee camps set up in 2001 were dismantled.
“The UNHCR is forming its own authority and violating the sovereignty of the Kingdom
of Cambodia,” said the aide
memoire, titled “Illegal Activities of the UNHCR in Cambodia.”
Mihajlovic fiercely denied the allegations on Monday, but said the UNHCR has heard them for the past two years.
“It’s sad to hear [the government] is still saying the same things,” he said, adding: “In Cambodia, you can’t do anything without approval from the authorities.”
As for how the Montagnards reach the office, Mihajlovic said: “We have no idea. They just show up.”
“This is the only place they can come,” he added.
Calls to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak went unanswered on Monday
Following a crackdown on protests for land rights and religious freedom in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 2001, hundreds of Montagnard asylum seekers fled into Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces. In early 2002, Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement on the voluntary, UN-monitored repatriation of approximately 1,000 asylum seekers to the Central Highlands.
However, that deal soured a few months later following Vietnamese harassment of the refugees. Vietnam also barred UN monitoring teams from the Central Highlands.
In April 2002, two UN refugee camps were closed and about 900 Montagnards were transported to Phnom Penh, where they were processed for resettlement in the US.
Since then, Cambodia has adopted a widely criticized policy of defining Montagnards as illegal immigrants and summarily deporting them. Article 33 of the refugee convention, of which Cambodia is a signatory, says: “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”
Though some Montagnards, most of whom are Christians, still make it to UNHCR protection in Phnom Penh, others are known to have died or disappeared while hiding in the jungle after they cross the border.
The protests Saturday were the largest known Montagnard demonstrations since 2001. Hundreds of ethnic minorities took to the streets, resulting in a clash with police that left dozens wounded and two Montagnards dead, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
International media and foreign diplomats, including representatives from the US Embassy in Hanoi, were barred from the Central Highlands this weekend.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Italian radio Sunday that Italy was demanding that Vietnam allow UNHCR access to the Central Highlands and was working “to ensure that the Cambodian authorities will not create obstacles in the event of the escape of thousands of people toward the frontier, which is currently under strict control.”
Bhairaja Panday, a Bangkok-based UNHCR official, told The Associated Press that the UN has a good dialogue with Vietnam and is negotiating with Cambodia to allow refugees to seek asylum here.
Mihajlovic said Monday that the most recent Montagnard refugees fled Vietnam for a variety of reasons, including denial of land rights and religious freedom.
“All have various reasons to fear for their safety in their home country,” he said.
Despite the protests on Saturday, it’s “business as usual” at the UNHCR office, Mihajlovic said.
Yoeung Baloung, Ratanakkiri police chief, said police saw no Montagnards trying to cross the border on Monday.
“If they come, they come,” Mihajlovic said. “We stand ready as always.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)