The government has set a three-month deadline for Montagnards in Phnom Penh to return home or face being forcibly expelled to Vietnam by authorities, an Interior Ministry official said yesterday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist in repatriating the more than 200 members of the ethnic minority in the capital to their homes in Vietnam’s central highlands before the three-month deadline expired.
Sopheak dismissed a recent Human Rights Watch report that stated the highlanders faced systematic religious and political persecution in Vietnam, saying Vietnam had “an open door”.
He said the 13 Montagnards granted provincial refugee status in March after being escorted to the capital by the UN, were not the same as the scores who came to Cambodia in their wake, who he classed as economic migrants.
“After the 13 have been recognised by the government, other Montagnards came to Cambodia and they illegally settled in Phnom Penh with assistance. I can [call this] trafficking in persons,” Sopheak said.
“Nearly 100 of them are living in the suburban area of Phnom Penh, so we have informed the UNHCR to help them to go back to their home towns within three months after [the UNHCR] receive the notice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“So after three months, if those illegal immigrants have not gone back to their hometowns in Vietnam, the authorities of Cambodia will be implementing the immigration law of Cambodia. We will force them to go back by law.”
Rights groups have criticised the government – which has already deported dozens of Montagnards– for refusing to register those in the capital as asylum seekers while at the same time accepting refugees under a $A40 million resettlement deal with Australia.
Via email, Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, said some of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh had suffered imprisonment and beatings by Vietnamese authorities, while many had been forced to sign documents promising not to practice their Christian religion.
“Cambodia must agree to register them and assess their cases,” she said, calling the impending crackdown a breach of Cambodia’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention.
“[The] UNHCR will surely condemn this gross violation of the Refugee Convention.”
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, added: “I have no doubt that, given the relative care being given to those refugees being brought from Nauru, the government fully understands its international obligations to provide individual consideration to all persons claiming asylum.” The UNHCR did not respond by press time.