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A group of Montagnards
A group of Montagnards pose for a photo during a meeting with the UN on Sunday in Ratanakkiri province before being transported to Phnom Penh. ADHOC

Gov’t waffles on asylum duties

Five years after the government wrested control of refugee processing from the UN, the Kingdom is at least partially foisting responsibility for 13 Vietnamese Montagnards’ asylum claims back on the UN’s refugee office.

A 2009 subdecree granted the government sole responsibility for determining refugee status, after which the number of asylum seekers flocking to the Kingdom declined precipitously.

On Sunday, however, after the minority group from Vietnam’s highlands registered their asylum applications, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said they were “under the control” of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which could proceed as it saw fit. Yesterday, he clarified that Cambodia will conduct screening interviews, but “would like the UNHCR’s participation”.

Rights groups attributed this week’s reversal to a hastily implemented Cambodian policy motivated by political exigencies.

“It would be a good thing if the UNHCR were to handle [the Montagnards’] cases,” said Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “The subdecree was a premature delegation of responsibilities, as the government lacks the capacity and institutional credibility. Just look at its track record on refugees.”

In 2010, the government yielded to pressure from Vietnam and announced the closure of a UN-run centre that had served as a port of call for Montagnards fleeing religious persecution. Yesterday, the deputy director of the refugee office said any decision regarding the status of the 13 Montagnards could take “up to four years” due to a lack for resources and staff.

Deflecting responsibility to the UN could also be a way for the government to sidestep retribution from Hanoi, said Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales.
“I expect behind the scenes, Vietnam is lobbying Cambodia not to give [the Montagnards] asylum,” he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sopheak denied that any country, including Vietnam, could “interfere”.

A representative at the Vietnamese Embassy yesterday said he was too busy to comment on whether Vietnam had made any inquiries into the Montagnards.

The government’s equivocating over the refugee processing follows earlier ordeals that saw provincial officials vow to arrest and deport the group of 13 Montagnards as illegal immigrants.

The Montagnards also accused authorities of firing their guns in the air in an attempt to scare the group out of hiding, according to Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc.

The UN’s refugee office meanwhile said it “will provide support to the Refugee Department as needed” and is housing the Montagnards, some of whom fell ill in the forest.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA

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