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Breaking: Cambodia uncooperative in relocating Montagnard asylum seekers, says UN envoy

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (right) speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh today.
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (right) speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh today. Ananth Baliga

Breaking: Cambodia uncooperative in relocating Montagnard asylum seekers, says UN envoy

The United Nations is trying to relocate 36 Montagnard refugees with serious asylum claims to a third country, but the Cambodian government has so far failed to cooperate, a UN rights envoy to Cambodia revealed today.

The disclosure comes a day after it came to light that a Montagnard – a member of a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s central highlands – was set to be forcibly deported after his asylum claim was rejected by the Cambodian government.

“I am concerned about the situation of 36 Montagnards whom UNHCR [the UN refugee body] has offered to find a solution outside of Cambodia based on the seriousness of their asylum claims,” UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith said on Friday in a press statement at the end of her two-week mission in Cambodia.

“The Government of Cambodia has to date not agreed to facilitate their transit to a safe third country.”

“I ask the Government of Cambodia to liaise with UNHCR to ensure that the 36 Montagnards in need of international protection as refugees will not be returned to Vietnam.”

The asylum seeker issue was just one of several human rights concerns raised in her end-of-visit statement.

In an interview today, Smith said both the government and UNHCR had determined those 36 were “in need of protection”, and she had taken the matter up with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“If Cambodia cannot be a safe place of refuge then the government should work with UNHCR to ensure that they can be transited to a third safe country and settle there. The Minister took note of what I was saying,” she said.

Spokesmen at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the government’s refugee department could not be immediately reached for comment.

Since 2014, a wave of more than 200 Montagnards have fled to Cambodia claiming persecution by Vietnamese authorities. Of those, the vast majority have been “voluntarily” returned to Vietnam with the assistance of the UNCHR – although some Montagnards and refugee advocates have called into question how voluntary the process is. The insistence that such repatriations are voluntary was further undermined by yesterday’s news that one asylum seeker was set to be forcibly deported after refusing to return upon his claim being rejected.

Earlier this week, it was revealed Vietnamese authorities had visited the families of Montagnard asylum seekers in Vietnam, allegedly forcing them to write letters beckoning their loved ones back home.

“If the Montagnards who have been returned or have voluntarily returned to Vietnam are being persecuted, then obviously that is a problem,” Smith said on Friday, urging any who had a persecution case that fulfilled the requirements of the UN refugee convention to seek asylum in another country.

Thirteen Montagnards were recognised as refugees and sent to the Philippines last year. Fifty more, however, fearing an upcoming rejection of their claims, fled to Thailand earlier this year.

Only three others have been granted refugee status, and an estimated 38 remain in Cambodia to date.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but yesterday spokesperson Vivian Tan said the organisation is “working with the authorities to ensure that those who need international protection receive it”. 

“UNHCR firmly believes that no refugee or asylum-seeker should be pressured to return against their will. As such we have raised our concerns with the Cambodian authorities over the reported home visits in Viet Nam,” she said in an email yesterday.

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