The prospects for future Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia remain unclear following the government’s order last week that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees close a centre in Phnom Penh for the Vietnamese minority group, officials said yesterday.
Foreign minister Hor Namhong said on Friday that the government would allow the UNHCR to keep the centre open until February 15 after originally ordering that the facility be closed by January 1. A total of 76 Montagnards are now housed at the centre, 62 of whom have been granted refugee status, allowing them to be resettled in a third country.
Thousands of Montagnards, most of whom are Christian, have streamed into Cambodia since 2001, fleeing alleged political and religious persecution at the hands of Vietnamese authorities. Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to say yesterday whether Montagnard asylum seekers would still be welcome in the Kingdom following the closure of the UN centre in February, suggesting they have nothing to fear in their own country.
“Wait and see,” he said. “I don’t think the Montagnards will come again, because the Montagnards are living in their hometown already.”
Under a 2005 memorandum of understanding signed by Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR, Montagnard refugees in Cambodia are housed at the “closed site” in Phnom Penh temporarily before being resettled in a third country or voluntarily returning to Vietnam.
“The MOU remains the applicable legal framework governing the situation of Montagnard refugees in Cambodia,” the UNHCR said in an internal report last month.
With the closure of the centre in February, it remains to be seen how this legal framework may be altered.
“It’s all very unclear,” said Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services in Phnom Penh. “I don’t even know who’s assessing the cases of the new Montagnards.”
Kitty McKinsey, Asia spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said in an email that the UN was “seeking to find lasting solutions for the recognised refugees” at the centre.
“As for other Montagnards who might come to Cambodia in the future, we are discussing with the Cambodian government how their cases should be processed,” she said. McKinsey declined to comment directly on the 14 Montagnards at the centre who have not received refugee status, although she said asylum seekers who have appealed against rejections of their cases should not be deported during their appeals.
A December 2009 sub-decree placed the responsibility for refugee processing in the hands of the Ministry of Interior. The UNHCR said in its report last month, however, that it “continues to closely work with the government’s officials to develop the capacity of the Refugee Office”.
Mom Sophannarith, head of the Ministry of Interior’s refugee office, said his unit had not dealt with Montagnard cases.
“The government has it own refugee office, but we did not deal with the Montagnards,” he said. “This group of Montagnards did not seek refuge in Cambodia – they asked the UN to resettle them elsewhere, so this is the work of the UN.”
Coughlan said the closure of the Montagnard centre and the legal uncertainty surrounding the issue raised broader questions about Cambodia’s willingness to accept asylum seekers.
“Are the Burmese eventually going to be to cut off? Are the Pakistanis?” Coughlan said. “How many people?”