REFUGEE advocates have criticised a new sub-decree handing responsibility for asylum cases to the Ministry of Interior, two days after 20 Uighur asylum seekers were deported to China in the face of international protests.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said on Sunday that the sub-decree, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday, transfers control of asylum-case processing from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the ministry.
Twenty out of a group of 22 Uighurs who had applied for asylum through UNHCR last month were detained on Friday and forcibly deported to China the next day, inciting outrage among rights activists and UNHCR officials.
Cambodian officials had previously said that they were cooperating with UNHCR in processing the asylum claims.
On Sunday, Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Asia, said the new sub-decree – transferring “full responsibility for registering refugees, processing, screening and adjudicating cases” – was the culmination of a long-standing effort to nationalise the asylum process in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention.
In an article published by UNHCR in October 2008, Cambodia – as one of just two Southeast Asian nations to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention – was hailed as being on track to become a “refugee model” for Southeast Asia.
The article followed the signing of an agreement between UNHCR and the government that month that began the transfer of all asylum cases – except Montagnards from Vietnam – to a new Cambodian Refugee Office housed at the Department of Immigration.
The article described the change of location as “an important move – symbolic of this country’s determination to take on new responsibilities in protecting refugees’ human rights”.
Refugee advocates, however, said the deportation of the Uighurs and the events leading up to it showed the risks of transferring control of asylum cases to the government.
It is clear that the transfer of control to the government has failed."
Rights activists familiar with the case said that on the Wednesday prior to their detention, 20 of the 22 Uighurs were rounded up and transported in UNHCR vehicles under Cambodian police escort to a site under joint government-UNHCR administration. The whereabouts of the two remaining Uighurs are unknown.
Sister Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), which was involved with the Uighur case, said she was “shocked” at how the Cambodian government’s apparent reversal after formally requesting UNHCR assistance to determine the status of the Uighur group, offering to provide a safe house while their applications were pending. “Like sheep going to the slaughter, the people went to the safe house clearly believing they were going to be protected,” she said.
Sara Colm, as senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, agreed that the deportation had challenged the optimism that the transfer of asylum cases to the government would turn Cambodia into a safe haven for refugees.
“It is clear that the transfer of control to the government has failed, and now as a result you have 20 people who are at risk of losing their lives,” she said.
She also said the drafting of the sub-decree had been secretive and closed to most of those involved in refugee issues.
“It’s been an increasingly non-transparent process,” she said. “As far as we know, none of the government’s partners in refugee resettlement and processing – aside from UNHCR – saw the sub-decree or were invited to comment on it.”
When asked on Monday whether it was possible to obtain a copy of the order, Khieu Sopheak would not comment and hung up the phone.
McKinsey said on Sunday that despite Saturday’s deportation, which she said
UNHCR had tried to prevent, the agency will continue to work closely with the government to ensure a fair process for asylum applicants.
She emphasised, however, that only states have the power to provide protection for asylum seekers.
“We work very diligently and sincerely to assist the government and provide protection, but if a state has signed the Refugee Convention, it’s up to the state itself to provide protection,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, agreed that UN agencies cannot substitute for states in ensuring protection. “It’s proper to put the burden on the state,” he said. “In this case, the UNHCR is doing the right thing by asking the government to do its job.”
However, Coughlan said, UNHCR involvement will continue to be an important element of Cambodia’s adherence to the convention.
“What is desirable is that
UNHCR are involved in the refugee-status-determination process, and that no matter what the sub-decree says, there is no infringement to the right to asylum in Cambodia, and that due process will be followed,” she said.