UNHCR Defends Gov’t Refugee Proposal

The UN’s refugee agency on Tuesday defended plans to create a governmental body to judge asylum seeker claims in Cam­bodia, dismissing skepticism from UN human rights envoy Pe­ter Leuprecht and a consortium of human rights groups.

A UN High Commissioner for Re­­fugees official also did not re­spond directly to a question about the recent deportation of 11 Mon­tagnard asylum seekers who had been hiding in jungle areas near the northeastern border with Viet­nam.

On Sept 8, a high-level UNHCR delegation and government officials agreed to transfer asylum claim determinations to Cambo­dian authorities, whose stated policy is to define Montagnards as illegal immigrants and deport them.

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of Montagnard asylum seekers have been de­ported in the past two years.

“The need for an asylum seeker system has existed from the date that Cambodia acceded to the [1951 Refugee] Convention or even prior to that,” Bhairaja Panday, deputy regional representative of the UNHCR office in Bangkok, wrote in an e-mail received Tuesday.

“The current negotiations with the Government are unrelated to Montagnards,” he added, explaining that the body relates to all asylum seekers.

In a recent visit, Leuprecht ex­pressed a “high degree of skepticism” about the UNHCR proposal, adding: “If the same initiative had been taken at a time when Cambodia honored its commitments under the refugee convention, it would be a different story.”

The body may work in a developed country with a sound legal system, but not in a country in which the legal system is rife with corruption, Leuprecht argued.

Without mentioning Leu­precht’s name, Panday said in the e-mail that the UNHCR is not in a position to pass judgment on the Cambodian legal system.

“The system is young and is evolving. All emerging systems suffer from teething problems. We should not exaggerate the shortcomings,” Panday wrote. He added that the UNHCR is “not negotiating” with the government

“We are in the process of capacitating the government,” he wrote. “Asy­lum-seekers will be received and screened adequately only after the government has been sufficiently capacitated. That means that the concerned government officials would be in a position to understand and implement the international standards.”

The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee released a statement Tuesday condemning the recent Montagnard deportation and expressing skepticism about the proposed government asylum seeker body. Mon­tagnards, a French name given to the ethnic minorities living in the Central Highlands of Vi­etnam, currently face beatings and imprisonment of up to 13 years for practicing Christ­ianity, participating in land rights demonstrations or at­tempting to seek asylum in Cam­bodia, the CHRAC statement said.

“If you hand over the asylum process to the Cambodian au­thorities, who can assure us they will respect the convention?” Kek Galabru, president of Licadho, a member of CHRAC, said by telephone on Tuesday.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be contacted on Tuesday.

“In developing a system for asylum seekers one has to take into account the attempted influx of Mon­tagnards from Central Viet­nam,” said a Human Rights Watch official. “You cannot do it in a vacuum. You need to develop it in sync with realities on the ground.”

“I don’t see how far this capacity building can go,” the official ad­ded. “If there is no political will, training and capacity building is a fruitless exercise.” That is what capacity building entails.”


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