Ya Soknim may face uphill battle as she seeks refugee status to move to Malaysia
THE victim of an acid attack at the hands of a high-ranking military police official plans to seek asylum in Malaysia, but whether or not she fits within the legal definition of a refugee remains unclear, a legal expert has said.
Ya Soknim and 18 relatives plan to apply for refugee status through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.
Ya Soknim’s husband, Oung Vibol, said family members fear for their lives because the six people convicted in the May 2008 attack – including former Military Police Brigadier General Chea Ratha – remain free.
“We live in fear and are careful about our security every minute because we don’t know what will happen to us,” Oung Vibol said.
Family members say they have received death threats from people associated with Chea Ratha, who remains on Interpol’s wanted list.
Chea Ratha and five accomplices were convicted in absentia in November for the acid attack, which left Ya Soknim with severe scarring on her face and torso. Prosecutors accused Chea Ratha of ordering the attack after Ya Soknim’s niece, beauty queen In Soklyda, broke off a sexual relationship.
Oung Vibol said the family has been in discussion with the UNHCR about applying for refugee status. Seventeen family members are already in Malaysia, he said, and his wife is in Vietnam seeking treatment.
“I don’t know what kind of refugees we are,” he said. “But we are victims of threats from the perpetrator.”
Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, effectively leaving the country with no government-led framework for dealing with applicants. The UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur is responsible for determining refugee status for asylum-seekers in Malaysia.
It is also unclear whether Ya Soknim and her family fit within the strict legal definition of a refugee. The convention defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
Asylum-seekers, then, may face an uphill battle if they cannot prove they are victims of state-sanctioned persecution, said Lian Yong, a legal officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh. “Someone who’s not part of an ethnic group that is widely known to be targeted ... would have a really hard time,” Yong said.
Asylum-seekers can argue there has been a failure of the state to offer protection, or that the state is unable or unwilling to protect them, Yong said.
However, it is unclear if such a definition would apply in the Ya Soknim case. Authorities did pursue prosecution of Chea Ratha, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak noted.
“I think the family should be grateful to the Cambodian government and the authorities for the justice that has been provided in this case so far,” said Khieu Sopheak, who added that the investigation into Chea Ratha’s whereabouts is “continuing”. Still, the family is welcome to seek asylum elsewhere, he said. “It is up to them. Whether they will be accepted is up to the UNHCR,” he said.
Rights advocates, however, say Ya Soknim has a strong basis for making an asylum claim for her family abroad.
“It doesn’t appear the government has any mechanism or any will to protect these citizens – in this case, the family of Ya Soknim,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “I think they have a very strong case.”
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Kuala Lumpur said she was unable to comment on specific cases.