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Refugees set to depart

The majority of a group of Montagnard refugees being housed at a United Nations-administered refugee centre in Phnom Penh has been approved for resettlement in Canada and the United States, less than two weeks ahead of the scheduled closure of the site.

Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said yesterday that the agency had established solutions for most people at the site.

“We have solutions for virtually all the people at the site. Some of them will be leaving in the next few days, and some shortly after that,” he said by phone from Geneva. “I can confirm that the countries are Canada and the US.”

A small proportion of the group has opted to return to Vietnam after having applications for asylum rejected, Mahecic said.

“There were nine cases that covered about 11 people that were not identified as refugees, and these people, after going through the process, they volunteered for voluntary repatriation,” he said. “The others are in the process of being resettled.”

Mahecic declined to comment on the exact number of refugees who would be resettled in each country.

On November 29, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to UNHCR to announce that the refugee centre, in Sen Sok district, would be shuttered at the end of the year, warning that any Montagnards remaining at the site faced deportation to Vietnam.

The deadline was eventually extended until February 15 following a request from the agency. The centre contained 76 Montagnards when the closure was announced, 62 of whom were registered refugees qualified for third-country resettlement.

Since 2001, about 2,000 Montagnards – as Vietnam’s highland ethnic minorities are known – have fled to Cambodia due to official crackdowns. In December, Human Rights Watch estimated that about 300 Montagnard Christians were now serving prison sentences for their religious or political beliefs.

Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services, said yesterday it was “great news” that the majority of the Montagnards had been accepted for resettlement before the deadline.

“We’re very happy that Canada and hopefully the US are opening their arms to them,” she said. She added that UNHCR’s call to reject a small number of asylum applications was “probably a fair decision”.

Coughlan said it was unclear exactly when the resettlement would occur and how many in total had been approved, adding that there were still a number of cases being ironed out as of yesterday. 
“Everything is in a total state of flux at the moment,” she said.

The closure of the site will bring to an end a 2005 agreement between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR governing the processing of Montagnard asylum seekers.

Coughlan said it was as yet unclear how the Cambodian  government would process future cases involving Montagnard refugees.

“According to UNHCR, they have to be treated exactly the same way as any other asylum seeker,” she said.

“The major thing is that the Cambodian government remains open to processing refugee requests of asylum seekers, including Montagnards.”

When contacted yesterday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak did not comment in detail on how cases would proceed after February 15, but expressed hopes there would be “no refugees in future”.

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