The government has ordered the closure of a United Nations-administered refugee centre in Phnom Penh, casting uncertainty over the future of more than 60 Montagnard refugees now being housed at the site.
Local media reported yesterday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on November 29 to request the centre’s closure by January 1. The report also paraphrased the letter as stating that the government planned to deport to Vietnam the 62 Montagnard refugees now at the centre.
“The Royal Cambodian government will send the group of Montagnards back to Vietnam, including new Montagnards,” stated the report, which appeared in Cambodia Express News, a Khmer online news site.
A copy of the letter could not be obtained late yesterday, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong confirmed the centre would be closed at the end of the year.
“We want to finish the programme, because it has been a very long time,” he said, referring to the agreement between the government and UNHCR that governs the administration of the site. “We have informed [UNHCR] that the government wants to close this very soon.”
However, Koy Kuong said he knew nothing of plans to deport the Montagnards to Vietnam.
“It’s up to the UNHCR, because [the refugees] are under UNHCR control,” he said. “I don’t know where they will be sent.”
Koy Kuong said the ministry had received a request from UNHCR for an extension that would enable the centre to remain open, something the government was now considering.
Since the early 1990s, hundreds of Montagnards – as Vietnam’s highland minorities are known – have sought refuge in Cambodia, and many have been resettled in third countries through the UNHCR. Rights groups claim highland minorities face official repression in Vietnam, where they are targeted for their aspirations of ethnic and religious autonomy, as well as their support for United States forces during the Vietnam War.
Though the November 29 letter was sent to UNHCR by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, refugee processing is handled by the Ministry of Interior, according to a subdecree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen in December last year. The subdecree also formalised the transfer of all refugee registration and processing procedures from UNHCR to the Ministry of Interior.
Mom Sophannarith, the director of the government’s refugee office, which is under MoI, said late yesterday that he was not aware of any order requesting the closure of the Phnom Penh refugee site.
Toshi Kawauchi, head of the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh, said officials from his agency were now in talks with the government relating to the issue.
“The only thing I can confirm at the moment is that we are discussing the issue with the government,” he said.
“The letter, I understand, is not a final conclusion. For us, that’s the beginning of the discussion.”
UNHCR’s Asia spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey could not be reached yesterday.
The announcement of the centre’s closure comes nearly a year after Cambodian authorities deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China, a move that prompted an outcry from international rights groups.
The December 19 deportation came a day before Chinese vice president Xi Jinping arrived to sign economic assistance deals worth US$1.2 billion, something many observers linked to the Uighurs’ deportation.
Lian Yong, a legal officer at Jesuit Refugee Services, said she had not heard of the plan to close the refugee centre, but said the Montagnards at the site were still waiting to be processed by UNHCR.
“As far as we know, there are still people there, and some of them have been there for several years,” she said.
“We hope that there will be a durable and safe solution found for them soon.”
Vietnamese embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam could not be reached late yesterday.