As nine more Montagnard asylum seekers arrived in Cambodia yesterday, the Interior Ministry repeated its promise that if they are recognised as refugees but rejected from third countries, they will be deported back to the very place they fled.
Elaborating on remarks made by Interior Minister Sar Kheng earlier this week, ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak told the Post that accepting the refugees would be unconstitutional.
“The constitution states that Cambodia is a neutral country, not allied with any league. Therefore, taking refugees from any country … is against the Cambodian constitutional law,” he said.
In September, Cambodia signed off on a controversial $35 million refugee-resettlement deal with Australia. The accord, which has yet to be implemented, sparked global criticism and was met by fear from refugees, some of whom have self-harmed in protest.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Cambodia signed in 1992, the refoulement of refugees, or sending them back to their country of origin, is prohibited.
But Sopheak said he was not concerned about violating international law.
“Is the international law more important than the Cambodian laws and Cambodians?” he asked.
He said the government would reject refugees to preserve “happiness and harmony” in the Kingdom.
There will be “no refugee camp or Cambodians will die again”, he said, before hanging up the phone.
In recent months, dozens of ethnic Jarai Montagnards – indigenous people from Vietnam’s central highlands – have sought refuge in the Kingdom after fleeing alleged persecution.
Reports yesterday from local villagers and a rights worker of nine new arrivals – eight men and one woman – brought the number of Montagnards believed to be hiding in Ratanakkiri province to 32.
Since December, 20 Montagnards have made it to the capital to process their asylum claims.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor of rights group Licadho, said four men who were sent to file asylum claims at the Immigration Department on Monday were turned away and asked to return with official documentation.
Refugee law experts yesterday roundly denounced the threatened deportations.
“If they are assessed as refugees and returned to Vietnam, this would be a very clear violation of the most important provision of the Refugee Convention,” said Joyce Chia, formerly of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
But while deportations would breach the Refugee Convention, options for recourse are few.
“The only direct enforcement is through another state party to the convention [such as Australia] taking them to the International Court of Justice, but that has never happened in the history of the convention,” she said.
Australian lawyer and executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre David Manne said there is “no clear international jurisdiction under which a refugee’s rights could be challenged in this context”.
Both Chia and Manne said that Cambodia could face “informal” pressure from the international community.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Canberra’s “credibility” was at risk.
“Australia has signed up to the train wreck that is Cambodia refugee policy, and now they need to help sort it out,” he said.
But political analyst Ou Virak said Australia would likely be pleased that Cambodia was “sending a strong negative message: ‘Don’t come here’.”
The Australian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UN’s refugee agency, said it was “premature to talk about resettlement or other solutions before knowing the decisions on the refugee status” of the Montagnards.