UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, will question the government over its decision to deny asylum to the majority of Montagnards left in Cambodia, officials said, a month after the group was criticized for its role in repatriating some of the asylum-seekers to Vietnam.
Earlier this month, the Interior Ministry announced that three of the remaining Montagnards in Phnom Penh had been granted asylum, while the applications of 65 others had been rejected.
Houl Sarith, head of the refugee department’s application office for asylum-seekers at the ministry, said on Thursday that UNHCR representatives had informed Cambodian officials that they would soon travel to Phnom Penh to find out why so many applications were rejected.
The 65 rejected Montagnards would be returned to Vietnam—where they say they have fled due to widespread persecution—if their appeals were rejected, Mr. Sarith said at the time of the announcement.
“The Appeal Court complaint is not yet finished, but the UNHCR wanted our refugee department to give a clear explanation for the decision to drop the 65 Montagnards,” he said. “The UNHCR does not agree with our decision, so they want us to provide the specific evidence for the decision.”
Mr. Sarith said those who had their applications rejected could see a change if the UNHCR provided additional evidence to support their cases.
“The number we can provide asylum to will increase to more than three if the UNHCR gives us more evidence to prove that the people that failed are really refugees,” he said, adding that a date for the meeting was yet to be set.
Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s regional press officer, confirmed the plan, but was also unaware of a meeting date.
The latest wave of Montagnards—who have long faced widespread religious and political persecution in Vietnam—fleeing into Ratanakkiri province began in late 2014. An initial group of 13 were eventually granted refugee status and are currently in the Philippines awaiting assignation of a third country.
Almost all the other Montagnards are in Phnom Penh awaiting the Court of Appeal’s judgment or have been repatriated. A group of 25 were controversially returned to Vietnam “voluntarily” with the help of the UNHCR last month.
Some of those whom the UNHCR insisted had returned voluntarily said they were told they had no choice. They later reported persecution and surveillance after returning to Vietnam, including alleged forced television confessions, some of which were uploaded to YouTube earlier this month.
Grace Bui, a volunteer for the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, welcomed what appeared to be a tougher stance from the UNHCR.
“I am extremely happy that the UNHCR is finally getting tough with the Cambodian government. I wish they had done that earlier because I believe many of the hundreds of Montagnards that had been forced to go back to Vietnam might have qualified for refugee status,” she said.
“However, better late than never.”