Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Gov’t U-turn on Montagnard refugees

Gov’t U-turn on Montagnard refugees

Thirteen Montagnards pose for a photo during a meeting with the UN late last year in Ratanakkiri province before being transported to Phnom Penh for processing. ADHOC
Thirteen Montagnards pose for a photo during a meeting with the UN late last year in Ratanakkiri province before being transported to Phnom Penh for processing. ADHOC

Gov’t U-turn on Montagnard refugees

In a seeming about-face, the government has backed away from its looming deadline to deport more than 100 Montagnards currently seeking asylum in Cambodia, instead pledging to “expedite” the process of assessing their refugee status.

Following a meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh between Interior Minister Sar Kheng and the UN Refugee Agency, ministry spokesman Por Phak confirmed that the government would be working closely with the UN body to hasten asylum seeker processing.

“We will continue to work together with the UNHCR and the Montagnard refugees – with those that have been registered and those that are being processed in the near future,” he said.

“In the meeting, we agreed to expedite the process of registering the refugee status of the refugee Montagnards.”

Over the past 18 months, more than 200 Montagnards have fled the central highlands of Vietnam for Cambodia. The predominately Christian indigenous group alleges religious persecution in their homeland.

Only 13 Montagnards have thus far been recognised as refugees in Cambodia, while dozens have been summarily deported. Hundreds more have been left in limbo as the government has refused to process their claims, an obligation under the UN’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, to which they are a signatory.

In September, the government announced a three-month deadline for those waiting to be processed to return on their own accord or face being forcibly sent back to the Vietnamese authorities. That deadline was later extended to February.

Following the ultimatum, and amidst dwindling aid, several groups have since returned with assistance of the UN, who said it has received guarantees of safety from the Vietnamese government.

Local media reported late last night that the 13 who have already been granted refugee status would be resettled in the Philippines.

Interior Ministry spokesman Phak declined to comment on resettlement plans but said a deadline agreed to with UN to help find an offshore home for the 13 had passed.

“We are trying to do what we can in the best interests of the refugees,” he said.

The spokesman said there are more than 100 Montagnards still waiting to be processed but declined to comment on the government’s February deadline.

The government’s decision to process the Montagnards was welcome news yesterday for those working closely with the asylum seekers.

“If they agreed to register and speed up the process of assessing their status with UNHCR, then that is very good,” said Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia.

The Convention on Refugees defines a refugee as someone who, because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin.

“It’s good news if the Cambodian government is agreeing to fulfil its international obligation to give these Montagnards a fair refugee status hearing,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, via email.

“Let’s hope that this indicates a change of attitude recognising the Montagnards are fleeing serious rights violations in Vietnam that need to be taken seriously rather than being dismissed in the interest of maintaining fraternal relations between Phnom Penh and Hanoi.”

Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, where many of the Montagnards first entered the country, said it was a positive step, but cautioned that based on the government’s previous handling of Montagnard cases, the process would need oversight.

“The government cannot just conclude that they are illegal immigrants by just looking at them; they need to complete the proper process,” he said.

The UNHCR did not respond by press time yesterday.

MOST VIEWED

  • Omicron patients can stay home: PM

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has given the green light for anyone who contracts the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron mutation or any other variant to convalesce or receive treatment at home or in any other reasonable non-healthcare setting. The new decision supersedes a restriction on home care for

  • The effects of the USD interest rate hike on Cambodian economy

    Experts weigh in on the effect of a potential interest rate expansion by the US Federal Reserve on a highly dollarised Cambodia Anticipation of the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in March is putting developing economies on edge, a recent blog post by

  • Cambodia’s first ever anime festival kicks off Jan 22 at capital’s F3 centre

    Phnom Penh's first ever Anime Festival will bring together fans, artists, shops and other local businesses with ties to the Japanese animation style for cosplay competitions, online games, pop-up shops and more on January 22, with Friends Futures Factory (F3) hosting. F3 is a project that

  • PM eyes Myanmar peace troika

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN member states establish a tripartite committee or diplomatic troika consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar. The premier also requested that Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa

  • Demining rat ‘hero’ Magawa dead at 8

    A landmine-hunting rat that was awarded a gold medal for heroism for clearing ordnance from the Cambodian countryside has died, his charity said on January 11. Magawa, a giant African pouched rat originally from Tanzania, helped clear mines from about 225,000sqm of land – the equivalent of 42

  • Hun Sen gets 4th Covid shot, urges compatriots to follow

    Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany on January 14 received their fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccine and called on compatriots to follow suit as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in the community. This marks the launch of Cambodia's fourth-dose vaccination campaign,