The vast majority of the Montagnard asylum seekers remaining in Cambodia will be forcibly deported to Vietnam, thwarting the UN refugee body’s efforts to relocate 36 people with serious claims to a third country, according to an email leaked to the media yesterday.
The email, from a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staffer, says that Ministry of Interior Secretary of State Ouk Kimlek penned a letter saying the government would not allow the UNHCR to bring all 36 Montagnards – all with strong asylum claims – to a third country.
There were seven exceptions – three already recognised as refugees, and an additional four who were granted refugee status on appeal. However, 29 people are “slated to be forcefully returned to Viet Nam”, the email read.
In the email, the staffer, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, says that the UNHCR will look to bring those seven to an unspecified safe third country as soon as possible, but points out that the rejected Montagnards – a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s central highlands – “have good grounds for fearing persecution but have been rejected at first instance and on appeal despite the documented risks on return to Viet Nam”.
“By rejecting their claims, Cambodia can return these people . . . under the pretence that they are not refugees which constitutes a grave error in judgment in each of the cases,” the email read.
The email, part of which The Post has withheld due to ongoing efforts to help the asylum seekers, says the UNHCR is still pursuing the relocation option, “although Cambodia considers the matter resolved and expects these refugees to return to Vietnam”. A UNHCR request for a joint appeal review with the Refugee Department was never accepted, the email says.
Sister Denise Coghlan, of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said she was saddened by the news. “I think many of the people . . . have extremely serious cases and will face extreme consequences if they are returned to Vietnam, and I think Cambodia is failing in its duty as a signatory to the Refugee Convention,” she said.
Among those refugees are people who have spent more than a decade locked in Vietnamese prisons and who have been tortured, she said. “I am amazed that Vietnam still exercises so much political power over Cambodia,” Coghlan added.
“I think the Cambodian government should do everything in its power to allow the UNCHR to exercise its mandate and remove the people safely out of Cambodia.”
Also yesterday, a Montagnard man whose asylum claim was rejected was deported to Vietnam, according to Uk Hai Sela, head of investigations at the Ministry of Interior’s Immigration Department. “Yes, we sent him this morning,” he said, adding he was taken via the Bavet border checkpoint.
Hai Sela said he did not know anything of the rejected 29 Montagnards. The Interior Ministry’s Kimlek, along with spokesman Khieu Sopheak, could not be reached late last night; nor could Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry or Refugee Department Director Tan Sovichea.
The remaining Montagnards are part of the hundreds that fled Vietnam in 2014 and 2015. More than 130 have been “voluntarily” returned with the assistance of the UNHCR, while 13 were granted asylum and shipped to the Philippines. An additional 50 fled Cambodia for Thailand earlier this year, fearing their claims would be rejected.