More than 10 Montagnard asylum seekers will be deported to Vietnam after the government closes a United Nations-administered refugee centre at the end of the month, officials said yesterday, prompting an outcry from local and international rights groups.
On November 29, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, informing the agency that it had “decided to close” the Sen Sok district site on January 1.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, called on UN refugee officials to speed up the process of resettling 62 Montagnards living at the site who are “qualified for resettlement in third countries”.
Upon the closure of the centre, it added, the government would “repatriate to Vietnam the remaining Montagnards, including the new arrivals and those awaiting interview, on a date to be notified in due course”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said on Monday that the government was moving to dissolve the centre because it had been in operation for a “very long time”.
“We want to finish the programme,” he said. “We have informed [UNHCR] that the government wants to close this very soon.”
Koy Kuong added yesterday that there were “more than 10” asylum seekers at the site who are unregistered.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, confirmed the government would take action against the unregistered asylum seekers once the centre was closed.
“For the ones to be returned to [Vietnam] it is very easy, we can do it whenever. According to the Khmer immigration laws, they will be sent back to where they entered,” he said.
“If we don’t send back those who haven’t got resettlement rights from the UN, the opposition party will blame [the government],” he added, referring to opposition complaints about illegal migrants from Vietnam.
Guards at the refugee site – a four-story building in Sen Sok district – did not allow reporters to access the property yesterday, referring all questions to UNHCR officials.
Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR’s Asia spokeswoman, said the agency had requested additional time to solve the issue.
“We have asked the Cambodian government for more time to try and find a lasting solution for the 62 individuals who are at the site, and we hope that the Cambodian government will consider our request favourably,” she said.
When asked about the unregistered Montagnards at the site, McKinsey declined to give any details, saying UNHCR has a policy of not commenting on individual asylum cases.
In 2001 and 2004, around 2,000 Montagnards – as Vietnam’s highland minorities are known – fled to Cambodia after security forces crushed protests against land confiscations and religious persecution.
Since 2006, UNHCR has resettled a total of 999 Montagnards, mostly in the United States, and sent 751 of them home, the agency’s regional representative Jean-Noel Wetterwald told The Associated Press.
In a statement yesterday, Human Rights Watch stated that ethnic minorities continue to face arrest and imprisonment in Vietnam.
“We estimate that approximately 300 Montagnard Christians are currently serving prison sentences for their religious or political beliefs,” HRW stated.
Pen Bonnar, the Ratanakkiri provincial monitor for rights group Adhoc, said he was concerned about the fate of the unregistered Montagnard asylum seekers.
“We are concerned about the remaining ones that have not yet found a safe place to live … the government should give more time to UNHCR to complete their work,” said Pen Bonnar, who was closely involved with the influx of Montagnards in the mid-2000s.
The announcement of the centre’s closure comes nearly a year after Cambodian authorities forcibly deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China, a move that prompted an outcry from international rights groups. The December 19 deportation came a day before Chinese officials approved US$1.2 billion in economic assistance for Cambodia, something many observers linked to the Uighurs’ deportation.
Andrew Swan, a programme manager for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, said the Uighur deportation cast doubt on UNHCR’s ability to fully resolve the current situation.
“The UNPO is extremely wary of the ability of the UNHCR to guarantee the wellbeing of the refugees placed in its care, based on the experiences of Hmong, Uighurs, and Montagnards that have been deported from Cambodia,” he said.
As a result, UNPO urged UNHCR to “ensure the speedy repatriation of the 62 Montagnards to third countries, without delay or interference” from the government, and make sure any unregistered asylum seekers are transferred immediately to a location outside Cambodia.
“Under no circumstances can they be returned to Vietnam without their applications being processed in accordance with UNHCR procedures – a failure to do this will have too many similarities with what was seen in December 2009,” Swan said.
“It will also destroy any faith in the UNHCR and the Cambodian authorities to manage such cases.”
End of an era
The government’s announcement of the closure of the Sen Sok centre marks the apparent end of a tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia, signed in January 2005, governing the asylum claims of Montagnards.
Under the agreement – which exists separately from the government’s main refugee registration process – Montagnards are not able to resettle in Cambodia and are confined to the Sen Sok refugee site, according to an internal UNHCR assessment.
The assessment, dated last month, states that 65 Montagnards – including 34 below the age of 18 – were being housed at the Sen Sok site as of September. It said most of the people at the site are seeking to be reunited with family members – also refugees – who have been resettled in the United States. But it stated that a change in US policy in 2007, restricting the resettlement of refugees with “derivative status”, had complicated the Montagnards’ resettlement.
In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 27, six US Congressmen pointed out the “ongoing and severe mistreatment” of Montagnards in Vietnam and called on the US to take action to refugees in Cambodia and Thailand are “promptly resettled”.
“We request that the United States intervene at high levels with the governments of other countries in the region, particularly Cambodia and Thailand, to insist that Montagnard asylum seekers within their borders are not forcibly repatriated to Vietnam,” it stated.
US Embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said the embassy was in “close contact” with UNHCR and was committed to the “resolution of any resettlement or immigration cases that may arise under applicable provisions of US immigration law”.
Under such laws, he said, refugees resettled in the US can file resettlement petitions for their relatives within two years of their arrival in the country. He said, however, that family members “are not automatically entitled to resettlement, and they themselves cannot initiate their own resettlement process”.
The UNHCR’s November assessment stated that the agency expected a “durable solution” soon. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP AND SAM RITH