The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has rejected the asylum claims of 126 of 770 Montagnards under the organization’s protection in Phnom Penh, the UNHCR’s country representative said Thursday.
Thamrongsak Meechubot said that 296 Montagnards housed in UN facilities in Phnom Penh have been granted refugee status, while 333 are still waiting to have their claims assessed. The remainder, who have been denied refugee status, now fall outside the UNHCR’s mandate, he said. “We don’t know what they want to do, and we are not interested in what they want to do,” Meechubot said.
Amid government interviewing of the Montagnards on Wednesday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak warned that those who are not resettled in a third country will be sent back to Vietnam. Though some of those recognized as refugees want to leave for a third country, many want to remain here, though their decisions change daily, Meechubot said.
It will be up to the Cambodian government to decide whether refugees will be allowed to stay, he said. “A state isn’t obliged to keep refugees in the country if it has serious implications for political security,” Meechubot said, adding that the government believes the Montagnards’ presence here has serious political implications for Vietnam.
On Thursday, Khieu Sopheak referred questions about whether Vietnam would be dangerous for returning Montagnards to the Vietnamese authorities.
The Vietnamese Embassy denies that Montagnards are persecuted in the Central Highlands, despite more than 2,000 having fled the region for Cambodia since 2001. US-based Human Rights Watch voiced concern Thursday about the safety of Montagnards forcibly returned to Vietnam, even if they were not facing persecution when they left. “Some of them may face the real possibility of arrest and imprisonment” for fleeing to Cambodia, the official said.
Rights Watch has documented more than 180 Montagnards receiving jail sentences of between three and 13 years since Feb 2001 for demonstrating against land confiscation, religious activities or fleeing to Cambodia.