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Deportees' futures in legal limbo

Deportees' futures in legal limbo

Rights groups report one arrest in B'bang after Friday's deportation.

RIGHTS groups have continued to express concern over the fate of 56 Khmer Krom refugees who were deported by Thai immigration police on Friday and remain in legal limbo at the Poipet border crossing after being questioned by Cambodian authorities.

The deportees are currently being housed at the Poipet office of the Independent Democratic of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), a local NGO, until their statuses can be clarified.

"We are allowing them to stay temporarily until they have found somewhere to go," said IDEA secretary Chea Sokun.

"We are keeping them here because we want to protect them from any interference from the authorities."

The deportees were among a group of 62 arrested June 12 by Thai police. They claimed they were seeking political asylum after fleeing persecution in southern Vietnam, which has a significant minority of ethnic Khmers, also known as Khmer Krom.

Thach Setha, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, said it was unclear what steps authorities would take after questioning the group on its arrival at the border, but he said he was worried about the group's eventual fate.

"Right now they're still living without proper food and shelter. They don't even have clothes," he said.

"We have concerns about them right now. [Authorities] are seeking recommendations from their superiors, and I do not know what will happen to them."

Particular concerns have been raised about one deportee who was reportedly detained by police in Battambang province Sunday.

Chao Veasna, an assistant to Yont Tharo, a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker representing Banteay Meanchey province, said the arrested deportee was among a group of four who left the larger group. He said three of the four went to Phnom Penh to get in touch with relatives, while the fourth was arrested by police in Battambang's Mong Russei district.

"He called to his friends to tell them that police had arrested him, and then the phone was cut off and he has not been able to be contacted since then."

Hun Hean, Banteay Meanchey's provincial police commissioner, said he did not know anything about the disappearance but said he would investigate the matter.

Legal confusion

The situation of the deportees is complicated by their vague legal status, and civil society groups say the exact facts of the case remain unclear.

"They are really Khmer Kampuchea Krom, but we do not know whether they entered Thailand because they were threatened or whether they just wanted to live in another country," said Soum Chankea, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc.

Toshi Kawauchi, head of the Phnom Penh office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), confirmed some of the Khmer Krom had approached the office in Bangkok for help but that the full situation was still unclear.

"We are still in the process of trying to find out what actually happened and how many people are involved. Depending on the facts we find, we will have to get in touch with the Cambodian government for their appropriate intervention," he said.

Police officials have contested the legal status of the deportees.

"They come from Takeo and Kampot and Prey Veng provinces, they are Khmer citizens, not Khmer Krom," Poipet immigration police Chief Sao Bunrith said Sunday.

Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that those Khmer Krom registered as asylum seekers with the UNHCR should have been able to have their cases adjudicated.

"Our main concern is that they have their asylum claims fairly heard in a safe environment," she said Monday.


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