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A group of Montagnards sit in front of UN officials
A group of Montagnards sit in front of UN officials in December during a meeting in Ratanakkiri province before being transferred to Phnom Penh, where they were granted provisional refugee status. PHOTO SUPPLIED

‘No rush’ on refugee claims

Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong yesterday defended the government’s inaction on the recent influx of Montagnards from Vietnam, arguing that if it continued to register the asylum seekers, the numbers pouring in would spiral out of control.

Since October, well over 100 Montagnards – an indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – have fled to Cambodia citing religious and political persecution.

So far, just 13 have been granted provisional refugee status, while the number awaiting registration rises dramatically by the week, with 85 now stuck in limbo in the capital, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Speaking after a meeting yesterday morning with Scott Busby, US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, Namhong said that in the same way Cambodia has an obligation to hear asylum claims, the UN has an obligation to resettle refugees elsewhere.

“Now we have given refugee status to 13 Montagnards, so UNCHR is looking for a third country to send them to,” he said.

During the meeting, Bubsby urged Namhong to allow the remaining Montagnards to have their claims heard and adjudicated, but Namhong dismissed the suggestion, arguing that doing so would lead to an uncontrollable influx of alleged asylum seekers.

“I said if I follow him, I might have from 50,000 to 100,000 Vietnamese here asking to be Montagnards, and if we just received them when they enter Cambodia in terms of them being Montagnard refugees, from 500,000 to 1 million Vietnamese could enter,” he said.

UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the agency “hopes that all individuals wishing to seek asylum can do so under Cambodia’s sub-decree 224”, which deals with the procedures for recognising refugees.

She added that UNHCR “remains committed to working with Cambodia and Vietnam to find solutions to this situation”, while acknowledging that resettlement options for the 13 refugees had yet to be found.

David Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne, cited the Refugee Convention, to which Cambodia is a signatory, as reason for the asylum seekers to be immediately registered.

“As soon as Cambodia seeks to press the pause button on its legal obligations under the Refugees Convention, it risks seriously compromising the safety of the very people that these laws are meant to protect,” he said.

But Kem Sarin, director of the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Department said that any asylum seekers entering Cambodia needed to inform border officials of their arrival and pass an interview with them before being allowed access to the refugee procedures in Phnom Penh.

“If they come in and hide, it is the same as human trafficking,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SARAH TAGUIAM

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