The UN refugee agency yesterday rejected claims from the Interior Ministry that it knows 10 Montagnards hoping to be assessed for asylum are not legitimate refugees.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said comments made by Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak in an interview this week were untrue. On Wednesday, Sopheak said that, despite not yet having their claims registered or assessed, the ministry had determined that the 10 asylum seekers are illegal immigrants.
If they are “real Montagnards we get the information from the UN”, he said. “If they were Montagnards, we would accept them immediately … [but] UNHCR knew they were not.”
Tan said UNHCR was unsure whether the group were legitimate refugees, but still expected their claims to be assessed.
“As far as we know, they will be registered upon higher-level approval,” she said.
“According to global practice, it is usually not possible to determine the legitimacy of someone’s asylum claims without putting them through the relevant procedures,” she added.
The 10 asylum seekers are among dozens of ethnic Jarai Montagnards – a persecuted group from Vietnam’s central highlands – to have fled the to Cambodia since October.
Their arrival has been met with varying responses from the government. In the last week alone, dozens were deported back to Vietnam, while 13 were granted refugee status.
Sopheak said the 13 were recognised as refugees because UNHCR had supported their claims; something he said the agency hadn’t done with the 10 awaiting registration.
Tan confirmed yesterday that UNHCR continues to assist the 13 refugees with accommodation and meals, while the 10 are being helped by NGOs.
When asked about the UN’s differing treatment of the two groups, Tan said that, “due to limited resources, UNHCR usually assists only the most vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers in Cambodia.
We stepped in to provide accommodation for the 13 on an exceptional basis, and are working with partners to ensure some support for subsequent arrivals.”
Sopheak and others officials could not be reached.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY