By Suzy Khimm
The Cambodia Daily
The US State Department has cancelled its policy of offering “second chance” interviews in Phnom Penh to Montagnard asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the US Embassy said.
As of May 1, Montagnards rejected by the UNHCR should return to Vietnam and then approach the US Embassy in Hanoi or the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City directly if they want to apply to the US State Department for refugee status, embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said.
Daigle said the change in policy was due to improved conditions for Montagnards in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and better access to the region by outside monitors.
“We believe that human rights conditions are improving in the Central Highlands, a region to which UNHCR and other diplomatic missions have had increased access over the past year,” Daigle wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
“[We] have received assurances from the Vietnamese government that it will allow Montagnards to apply for refugee status at our embassy or consulate in that country. We have no reason to doubt these assurances,” Daigle added.
The “second chance” interviews were previously conducted in Phnom Penh by representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security based in Bangkok, in concert with the US Embassy, Daigle said.
Washington-based organization Refugees International voiced concern about the policy change. “The new policy weakens protections for Montagnards…and possibly exposes Montagnards to new problems when forced home,” Refugees International said in a statement.
The change “would close a crucial safety valve for Montagnards because travel within Vietnam is sometimes restricted,” Refugees International added.
In 2006, the US interviewed 75 Montagnards rejected by UNCHR in Phnom Penh and granted refugee status to 33, Refugees International said.
In a June report, Human Rights Watch alleged that Montagnards in the Central Highlands continue to suffer serious human rights abuses and face torture and persecution.
According to an independent report commissioned by the UNHCR in Phnom Penh and obtained last week, the UNHCR’s monitoring missions to the Central Highlands are problematic. “Monitoring visits from UN representatives are carefully anticipated and followed up by the [Vietnamese] government and…‘unfettered’ monitoring systems should be pursued,” the report stated. “The current agreements and monitoring practices have not eliminated the concerns about eventual risks involved in the repatriation of Montagnards who fled Vietnam,” it adds.
The report, published in February and written by a program manager with ZOA Refugee Care, also describes “severe forms of religion-based punitive action” regularly mentioned by Montagnard asylum-seekers in Phnom Penh, which it said included beatings, forced labor, imprisonment, full-time surveillance by police and land confiscation.
Despite the survey’s recommendations, UNHCR spokeswoman Inge Sturkenboom said her agency was satisfied with the current repatriated Montagnard monitoring system, which she said has not found any instances of persecution or obstruction by Vietnamese officials.
“We would be worried if we had, but our missions have not indicated any irregularities,” she said Sunday.
The Vietnamese Embassy welcomed the US’ policy change. “Before [the US] had the wrong conception. People have religious freedom [in Vietnam],” embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam said, adding that Montagnards are free to travel to complain to local authorities if they feel they are being mistreated.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)