Cambodian police, not UN officials, will soon begin the process of screening asylum seekers in Cambodia, except Montagnard ethnic minorities fleeing Vietnam, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said this week.
The coming change is part of a gradual transfer of refugee responsibilities from UNHCR, which began processing asylum seekers in Cambodia in 1994, to local authorities, UNHCR regional spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said Tuesday.
The Interior Ministry said it was prepared to abide by the 1951 refugee convention, which Cambodia signed in 1992 and which calls on countries to assist individuals fleeing persecution.
Fewer than 100 people currently make up Cambodia’s case load of “urban refugees” from across the region and the globe, according to UNHCR. Last month UN officials started conducting interviews with urban refugees at the newly created Cambodian Refugee Office, located within the national police’s immigration department headquarters opposite Phnom Penh International Airport.
The Interior Ministry is currently drafting a sub-decree that would allow immigration police to take over this function, according to McKinsey.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said Tuesday he had no information on the draft sub-decree but said that Cambodian police would faithfully implement the law.
“We are still a member of the 1951 convention and what that convention says we will observe,” he said.
McKinsey said UNHCR would maintain a watchful presence in processing refugees in Cambodia.
“We’re going to be giving extensive training to the Cambodian officials who are making these decisions and we will be monitoring these decisions,” she said.
However, citing a lack of training and potential for corruption and political interference in the Cambodian police force, human rights workers expressed concern that police may not be equipped to deal fairly and objectively with asylum seekers.
The bulk of asylum seekers in Cambodia are Montagnards-they accounted for 91 percent of the 694 refugees in 2007, according to UNHCR statistics-who are kept at closed sites in Phnom Penh while they are processed by UNHCR under an agreement with Vietnam and Cambodia, which remains in effect.