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A photo of the 13 Montagnards after meeting with the UN. Photo supplied
A photo of the 13 Montagnards after meeting with the UN. Photo supplied

A countdown to refoulement

The planned upcoming deportation of Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam will include 13 already recognised as refugees in March unless the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can find a third country to resettle them, the UNHCR and a refugee advocate said yesterday.

Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, said along with a three-month deadline set in September for more than 200 Montagnards in Phnom Penh – who have been denied a chance to register as asylum seekers – plans were afoot to kick out those already officially declared refugees, saying their expulsion could be “imminent”.

UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the agency, which is currently assisting in repatriating Montagnard volunteers, had also heard a deadline for the refugees had been set.

She said the agency had “communicated our position to the Cambodian authorities” but did not elaborate further.

In February, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the group – recognised as refugees in March after the UNHCR escorted them to the capital – would be deported regardless of their status if no third country would take them.

Yesterday, he would not address questions about when or why they would be deported, a move that would violate the UN Convention on Refugees, to which the Kingdom is a signatory.

Sopheak said he was hopeful the UNHCR would find them somewhere to live.

He cited the UNHCR’s efforts to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis as evidence more could be done. “There is no way that the UNHCR cannot find a third country for them if they have the will,” he said. “How can they discriminate between the Montagnard and refugees from the Middle East? They are the same. They are human beings.”

“How can they receive 10,000 refugees from the Middle East but refuse 13 Montagnards from Vietnam?” he added, refusing to explain why Cambodia could not take the group themselves.

Over the past year, hundreds of Montagards, an indigenous group from Vietnam’s central highlands, have fled to Cambodia claiming religious and political persecution. The government has refused to register all but the 13, calling them illegal “economic migrants”.

According to the 1951 refugee convention: “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Yesterday, rights groups reacted with outrage to the news.

“Since Montagnards started arriving in Cambodia last year, the government has shown consistently that it doesn’t care about its obligations under the Refugee Convention and international human rights law,” said Amnesty International researcher for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam John Coughlan“This is as clear a violation as can be imagined, and an act for which there can be no justification.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, agreed.

“Refoulement doesn’t get more outrageous or clear cut than this, so donor governments and the UNHCR should be publicly demanding Phnom Penh abandon this plan to send this group of 13 back into harm’s way in Vietnam.”

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