Canadian, British, German and US diplomats called on the Cambodian government Wednesday to cease the deportations of Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam, in a meeting between the diplomatic community and the Interior Minister.
In order to comply with the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, to which Cambodia is a signatory, the diplomats said the government must halt the deportations and honor the Montagnard’s asylum claims, Canadian Ambassador Stefanie Beck said Wednesday.
“We wanted to go in person to get [government officials] to live up to their obligations under the UN Refugee Convention,” said Beck, who attended the meeting with US Charge d’Affairs Mark Storella, German Deputy Head of Mission Frank Ruckert and British Deputy Head of Mission John Mitchell.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak denied that Co-Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng had ordered any deportations, but foreign ministry officials have called the asylum seekers “illegal immigrants” and maintained a policy of deportation would continue.
In the meeting, Sar Kheng agreed to allow the diplomats to travel to Cambodia’s border provinces and investigate reports that Montagnards may be hiding there, Khieu Sopheak said.
“Sar Kheng said, ‘Sure,’ so long as they request in advance,” Khieu Sopheak said.
The area has been off limits to officials from UN High Commissioner for Refugees since border camps for the Montagnards were closed in 2002. More recently journalists have been prevented from traveling near the border in Mondolkiri province, where some 240 Montagnards were reportedly detained and deported in recent weeks.
Human rights officials and an opposition parliamentarian have also called for an investigation into reports that female asylum seekers were raped and robbed by Cambodian border guards.
Beck said the group has not yet set a date for the trip.
The diplomats also suggested the government and the UNHCR meet regularly to work out issues regarding the asylum seekers, said Interior Ministry Secretary-General Nuth Sa An.
Khieu Sopheak acknowledged that some Montagnards may have been deported unwittingly, as the government has not yet defined the difference between a Montagnard and an illegal immigrant.
“So far all of us cannot identify what are the illegal immigrants and what are the refugees,” he said. An interministerial committee would be outlining the definitions, he added.
Beck said the diplomats did not tell the government what the repercussions would be if they did not comply with the demands. Such an exercise would probably be “pointless,” she said.
The British and German diplomats called the meeting “constructive” shortly after it concluded Wednesday but declined to comment further. Contacted later by telephone, US spokeswoman Heide Bronke declined to comment on the meeting.
Nikola Mihajlovic, the UNHCR’s Cambodia representative, called the meeting purely diplomatic.
“We are not involved with that,” he said.
Four new asylum seekers—three men and a 13-year-old boy, all members of the Jarai minority from Vietnam’s Gai Lai province —arrived Tuesday at the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh offices. There are now 91 Montagnards in Phnom Penh seeking refugee status, Mihajlovic said.
Most of the asylum seekers have made their own way to the UN office since the beginning of the year and are being processed for refugee status.
In April, some 160 Montagnards were reportedly deported from Cambodia when they fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands after thousands took part in demonstrations on April 10 and April 11, demanding the return of their ancestral lands and religious freedom.
In 2002, the US resettled about 900 Montagnards who fled Vietnam after large demonstrations the previous year. Two UN refugee camps, which housed more than 1,000 people, were disassembled, and the UNHCR has been unable to establish new camps.
Recently the government has accused UN refugee workers of smuggling asylum seekers, and the UNHCR has accused the government of improper deportations.
The meeting was called after government communications with the UN refugee organization broke down during the past few months, Beck said. Officials from both government and the UNHCR have both been making public statements attacking each other’s operations, she said.
“They need to talk—both of them—the UNHCR and Cambodia,” Beck said. She added relations are improving. “We’re certainly way beyond four weeks ago when everyone was saying rude things about each other.”