Refugees and asylum-seekers will now have their cases reviewed by the Department of Immigration, but the UN is not completely out of the loop
Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Montagnards protest the deportation of 28 ethnic minority asylum-seekers outside the Phnom Penh UNHCR office in July.
FOREIGN asylum-seekers in Cambodia will now have their cases heard at the Department of Immigration rather than the UN High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) office, according to a press release Monday.
The UNHCR office has been the port of call for refugees in Cambodia for the last 14 years, serving the needs of a small number of people, mainly persecuted Montagnards from Vietnam's Central Highlands who have been forced to flee their homelands.
According to the press release, the decision on whether to grant refugee status to individuals still rests with UNHCR officers, but will be done in stricter consultation with Cambodian officials, with the goal of eventually handing over authority entirely.
Toshi Kawauchi, protection officer at the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh, told the Post Tuesday that he saw the move as a positive step, symbolising Cambodia's growing responsibility in the area of refugee rights.
"It is a positive sign that the government is committing itself and taking responsibility [for refugee law]," he said.
He added that although the office has already moved, the government and the UN were still in the process of drafting domestic laws that would formalise the new procedures.
"It is an ongoing process," he said.
"Right now we are preparing the legal framework that will be needed to formulate proceedings."
Sok Phal, deputy director of immigration police, said that the move represents Cambodia's commitment to upholding international standards of law without the help of the UN.
"We have always worked in cooperation with UNHCR, and now we will continue to cooperate with UNHCR, but we will be the authority."
Government policies, in which the UNHCR were complicit, came under fire earlier this year when scores of Montagnards protested the deportation of 28 of their fellow asylum-seekers outside the UNHCR office.
According to the UNHCR, only around 300 Montagnards have been granted refugee or asylum-seeker status and remain in Cambodia.
Kawauchi said the UNHCR was confident the Cambodian government would incorporate international standards when rewriting their domestic laws.