Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Government stonewalling on relocating refugees?

Government stonewalling on relocating refugees?

A Montagnard asylum seeker steps into a police vehicle last week as immigration police officials organise his deportation.
A Montagnard asylum seeker steps into a police vehicle last week as immigration police officials organise his deportation. Photo supplied

Government stonewalling on relocating refugees?

Refugee advocates have welcomed plans from the United Nations to relocate 36 Montagnard asylum seekers to a third country, but the Cambodian government yesterday remained silent as to why it has so far failed to cooperate.

The 36 are part of a wave of more than 200 Montagnards – a mostly Christian ethnic minority hailing from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – who fled across the border to Cambodia in 2014 and 2015.

UNHCR’s Vivian Tan yesterday confirmed the body was “seeking solutions” outside Cambodia on “an exceptional basis and in consultation with the Cambodian authorities”.

“We believe these 36 individuals have established good grounds for fearing persecution and should not be returned to Viet Nam,” she said via email yesterday.

“This is a work in progress and there are no further details at this point.”

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith on Friday said she was “concerned” for the fate of the 36 Montagnards – whom she said were in need of international protection due to the “seriousness of their asylum claims” – and urged Cambodian authorities to ensure they would not be returned to Vietnam.

“The Government of Cambodia has to date not agreed to facilitate their transit to a safe third country,” Smith said, adding she had brought the matter up with Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn, who “took note”.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Friday. Photo supplied

Several officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior’s Refugee Department either were unaware of the case or did not respond to calls and messages on Friday and yesterday.

The news of a possible safe haven for some comes at the same time as one of their fellow asylum seekers – an ethnic Ede, one of several groups that comprise the Montagnards – is set to be forcibly deported after his asylum claim was rejected.

Uk Hai Sela, head of immigration investigations at the Ministry of Interior, said the man, who was bundled into a van last Thursday, remains on Cambodian soil and is detained at the immigration office.

Hai Sela denied the man was a Montagnard, simply maintaining “he is Vietnamese”.

“Tomorrow the Vietnamese Embassy’s secretary of consular affairs will come and talk to him, and if he is Vietnamese, they will give him the travel document,” he said, denying any knowledge of the status of the other 35 Montagnard asylum seekers.

Grace Bui, of the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, said she had spoken to some asylum seekers who were “very happy” about the UNHCR’s intentions.

“Finally they feel there is hope for them,” she said.

But she doubted the Cambodian government – which has historically cosy ties to Vietnam – would be easily persuaded to release the refugees to a third country.

“The Cambodian government doesn’t want to do anything to upset the Vietnamese government,” she said. “We need to put more pressure on them.”

She said the Montagnards were dispossessed of their land, had their churches burned down, were thrown into prison and were even tortured.

Viet Nguyen, a Vietnamese human rights defender, said Montagnards routinely faced religious and political persecution due, at least in part, to their support for the US during the Vietnam War.

“It is inhuman to send them back to Vietnam, because I know they will be imprisoned or even [end up] dead in prison,” he said. “The Vietnamese government will not arrest them right away, but they will wait for couple of months, or even a year and then they will arrest them all.”

More than 130 Montagnards in Cambodia were “voluntarily” returned to Vietnam by the UNHCR after their asylum claims were rejected, but some Montagnards and refugee advocates claim the asylum seekers were given “no choice” in the purportedly voluntary process.

Those fears were fuelled last week when it was revealed that Vietnamese authorities visited the families of Montagnard asylum seekers in Vietnam and allegedly forced them to write letters encouraging their loved ones to return home.

Since the influx of asylum seekers, three Montagnards have had their claims approved and were allowed to resettle in Cambodia, while 13 were recognised by Cambodia as refugees and sent to the Philippines last year. However, 50 more fled to Thailand in April, fearing their asylum claims would be rejected.

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • General’s gun smuggling ring busted

    The Military Police sent six military officers to court on November 22 to face prosecution for possession of 105 illegal rifles and arms smuggling, while investigators say they are still hunting down additional accomplices. Sao Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of

  • More Cambodians studying in US

    The number of Cambodian students studying at US colleges and universities in 2020-21 increased by 14.3 per cent over the previous year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent US government report. The 2021 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange showed that 848 Cambodian students studied

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration

  • Banteay Meanchey gunfight sees 15 Thais arrested, three officers injured

    The Banteay Meanchey Military Police have arrested 15 Thai suspects and their accomplices after a gun battle between two Thai groups caused injuries to three police officers in the early hours of November 21, local authorities said. National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy said that according to

  • PM: Do not defile Tonle Sap swamp forest or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone – including government officials – involved with the deforestation of the flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake because it is an area important to the spawning of many species of fish, among other reasons. Speaking in a