After more than seven weeks of hiding in the forests of Ratanakkiri province to avoid deportation, 13 Vietnamese Montagnards arrived in Phnom Penh yesterday to submit asylum requests.
The group of 12 men and one woman claim to be fleeing religious persecution in Vietnam, where the northern minority hill tribes have been subjected to police raids, arrests, beatings and forced renunciations of Christian faith.
“I’m OK. I’m with the UN now. I don’t want to go back [to Vietnam],” one of the Montagnards said yesterday.
Eight Montagnards met with UN representatives on Saturday after the organisation spent nearly a month blocked by armed provincial authorities.
Later the same day, Ratanakkiri’s border police stumbled upon the other five Montagnards in O’Yadav district, approximately 80 kilometres from where the first group had taken cover. The asylum seekers were forwarded on to UN officers.
“We do not know why the local authorities stopped trying to block the joint mission from meeting with the Montagnards any more than we know why they blocked access to begin with. We are very pleased that whatever the reason, it was overcome and that good cooperation ensued,” said Wan-Hea, Lee, country representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.
Following a 12-hour trek from Ratanakkiri accompanied by the UN and a police escort yesterday, the Montagnards registered their asylum applications at the Phnom Penh Immigration Office, where a small fire earlier in the day nearly caused a hiccup in the process.
The UN also had a doctor on standby to visit with the group after their stay in the jungle, which was plagued by illness and malaria.
The UN declined to comment on how the Montagnards’ asylum claims will now be assessed or how long the process will take, deferring to the government.
Though Cambodia took over refugee processing from the UN in 2009, officials from the government’s immigration centre said yesterday that they were unaware of Montagnards in Phnom Penh seeking asylum.
“I have no idea about that,” said Keo Sarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Department.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak abdicated any responsibility for the Montagnards, claiming their status “is under the control of the UNHCR”, the UN Refugee Agency.
The government’s treatment of these Montagnards is under increased scrutiny as the first test of Cambodia’s refugee policies since a heavily criticised resettlement arrangement was signed with the Australian government earlier this year.
“Cambodia cannot cut corners or play games with these cases, they will need to decide on a fair assessment of the facts that also recognises Vietnam’s long-time policy of discrimination and abuse against Montagnards,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division.
Cambodia is one of the few countries in the region to have ratified the 1951 refugee convention, but the government has nevertheless garnered a lacklustre record in protecting refugees’ – and particularly Montagnards’ – rights.
In 2005, approximately 100 Montagnard refugees were detained and attacked by Cambodian police in a move that elicited international criticism.
Following reports that such attacks and forced repatriations were not uncommon, the UN signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding with Cambodia and Vietnam.
Montagnard asylum seekers already in Cambodia were allowed to stay until their asylum applications were processed. Montagnards granted asylum were presented an option: voluntary repatriation back to Vietnam or resettlement in a third country.
The Interior Ministry said that no Montagnards have settled in Cambodia.
“Those people don’t want to stay in Cambodia,” said ministry spokesman Sopheak. “Most have been resettled in the US, there is a big community there now.”
The largest number of Montagnards outside of Vietnam reside in America where they were resettled due to close relations formed during the Vietnam War when Montagnards cast their lot with the US Army, an alignment partially responsible for some of the hill tribes’ post-war suffering.
Though the Interior Ministry said such a third country resettlement would reflect a “positive outcome”, for the Montagnards, the US Embassy yesterday declined to comment on whether it is involved or willing to become involved in the asylum process.
With the international community closely watching Cambodia’s handling of the Montagnards, the government “is more likely to give them some recognition”, but it’s still unlikely to compromise close diplomatic ties with Vietnam, said Carlyle Thayer, a Cambodia expert and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“Cambodia is under no obligations to accept these people, but it is under obligations not to refoule them,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY