Just days after deporting dozens of Montagnard asylum seekers, government officials yesterday announced that a group who arrived in Cambodia in October have been unofficially deemed refugees, in a move analysts say is likely to anger close ally Vietnam.
Officials at the Interior Ministry told the Post that the Refugee Department, which is in charge of assessing asylum claims, had recommended that all 13 Montagnards – an indigenous group from Vietnam’s central highlands – be recognised as refugees.
“These 13 Montagnards have come and requested [refugee status] since last year, and we have learned that their request is true, unlike those [illegal Vietnamese immigrants] who come to dig cassava or for logging,” said the department’s deputy director, Mom Sophanarith.
The group, which comprises 12 men and one woman, were given safe passage to Phnom Penh in late December after spending weeks in hiding in Ratanakkiri province, fearing deportation.
Although they have yet to be officially given refugee status, the quick processing of their applications stands in stark contrast to those of other asylum seekers, of whom few, if any, have had their refugee status determinations completed in the required 45 days, according to refugee advocates. Many have been left waiting for years.
In violation of the 2009 sub-decree that granted the government sole control of determining refugee status, other Montagnards who arrived in Phnom Penh more than one week ago have not yet been registered, according to multiple officials.
In contrast to its vow last month to deport the refugees back to Vietnam if third countries could not be found in which to resettle them, the Interior Ministry yesterday said the Montagnards would be allowed to stay.
“When they obtain refugee status, they can live in Cambodia,” said Refugee Department Director Kerm Sarin, adding that the decision to be resettled in a third country would be up to the refugees themselves.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the UNHCR would “discuss the next step with the government in order to find the most suitable solution for this group”.
“We hope that others wishing to seek asylum will be able to access the refugee department just as the 13 individuals have been able to,” she added.
But following last month’s deportation of a young family of asylum seekers, authorities last week deported dozens more Montagnards back to Vietnam after they were arrested on their way to Phnom Penh. Back in Vietnam, the deportees claim to have been subjected to interrogation and abuse.
Dy Heun, a Cambodian ethnic Jarai villager who had been assisting the asylum seekers, was allegedly among those arrested last week.
Heun has been missing since Thursday and authorities continued yesterday to deny any knowledge of his whereabouts.
“The Khmer was not arrested. The Khmer was not taken anywhere. Police [only] arrested and deported the 36 Vietnamese people,” said Ouk Hay Seyla of the General Immigration Department.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said OHCHR was “working through all possible channels to determine the whereabouts of the missing villager, but have not been able to do so as of yet”.
Following a recent public letter by US Ambassador William Todd reminding the Cambodian government that the international community was concerned by the treatment of the Montagnards, on a trip to Ratanakkiri province yesterday, British Ambassador Bill Longhurst discussed the issue with representatives of local rights group Adhoc.
“We encourage all levels of government in Cambodia to work in full cooperation with the relevant UN bodies regarding issues concerning refugees,” Longhurst said following the meeting.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the government’s varying responses to the Montagnards suggest that Cambodia is “navigating between Vietnam and the international community”.
The revelation that refugee status has been recommended would likely create problems between the allied countries, he added.
“Vietnam will not be pleased if highland ethnic minorities who sought asylum in Cambodia are given refugee status . . . This will impact on Vietnam’s international standing and also act as stimulus for other ethnic minorities to flee Vietnam,” he said.
“Vietnam will make its displeasure known through diplomatic channels but is unlikely to take any further steps because this would draw even more international attention to this issue.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TAING VIDA