The UN refugee agency called the government’s decision to allow it to open offices in the Northeast border provinces “a very good initiative” on Monday, but was cautious about what that would entail.
“It would be nice to open an office, but not if we would only be in the office and wouldn’t be allowed to go to the border,” Nikola Mihajlovic, country representative for Cambodia of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Monday.
The offices are expected to open after the government and the UNHCR sign a memorandum of understanding next month, which the government is currently drafting, Mihajlovic said. “It’s nice to put a positive spin on this, but the devil is in the details.”
Mihajlovic met with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong earlier in the day in what he described as “a relaxed, cordial atmosphere.” The UNHCR’s relationship with the government has been anything but cordial in recent months, as the government accused the refugee agency of trafficking Montagnards from border areas to its protection in Phnom Penh.
The relationship between the two is “very different than in the past,” Mihajlovic said, adding that the tension is “behind us.”
Hor Namhong did not answer repeated calls for comment Monday.
Last week, 21 Montagnards were photographed hiding in Ratanakkiri and local hill tribe minority sources reported that at least 140 others were hiding in the province.
On Sunday, hill tribe sources reported that another 48 Montagnard asylum seekers entered the province, pushing the total number in hiding to about 200.
“This is not just a humanitarian crisis, it’s a human rights crisis,” a representative from the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Monday. “People fleeing abuses in Vietnam are being hunted down in Cambodia.”
If the opening of UNHCR offices is contingent on signing an memorandum of understanding in some weeks time, that is too slow, the representative added.
“Action needs to be taken now,” the representative said. “The important thing is, will the UNHCR be allowed to assess and determine asylum claims in a manner that is fair and impartial and in an environment where refugees are safe?”
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay also greeted the government’s decision with cautious optimism Monday.
“It’s not easy to trust the [government] right away because so many bad things happened in the past” concerning Montagnard asylum-seekers, Son Chhay said.
Mihajlovic also addressed concerns from rights workers that the UNHCR would hastily hand over the asylum claim determination process to the government.
We will retain the responsibility of determining asylum claims “for a good while,” he said.