In a seeming about-face, the government has backed away from its looming deadline to deport more than 100 Montagnards currently seeking asylum in Cambodia, instead pledging to “expedite” the process of assessing their refugee status.
Following a meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh between Interior Minister Sar Kheng and the UN Refugee Agency, ministry spokesman Por Phak confirmed that the government would be working closely with the UN body to hasten asylum seeker processing.
“We will continue to work together with the UNHCR and the Montagnard refugees – with those that have been registered and those that are being processed in the near future,” he said.
“In the meeting, we agreed to expedite the process of registering the refugee status of the refugee Montagnards.”
Over the past 18 months, more than 200 Montagnards have fled the central highlands of Vietnam for Cambodia. The predominately Christian indigenous group alleges religious persecution in their homeland.
Only 13 Montagnards have thus far been recognised as refugees in Cambodia, while dozens have been summarily deported. Hundreds more have been left in limbo as the government has refused to process their claims, an obligation under the UN’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, to which they are a signatory.
In September, the government announced a three-month deadline for those waiting to be processed to return on their own accord or face being forcibly sent back to the Vietnamese authorities. That deadline was later extended to February.
Following the ultimatum, and amidst dwindling aid, several groups have since returned with assistance of the UN, who said it has received guarantees of safety from the Vietnamese government.
Local media reported late last night that the 13 who have already been granted refugee status would be resettled in the Philippines.
Interior Ministry spokesman Phak declined to comment on resettlement plans but said a deadline agreed to with UN to help find an offshore home for the 13 had passed.
“We are trying to do what we can in the best interests of the refugees,” he said.
The spokesman said there are more than 100 Montagnards still waiting to be processed but declined to comment on the government’s February deadline.
The government’s decision to process the Montagnards was welcome news yesterday for those working closely with the asylum seekers.
“If they agreed to register and speed up the process of assessing their status with UNHCR, then that is very good,” said Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia.
The Convention on Refugees defines a refugee as someone who, because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin.
“It’s good news if the Cambodian government is agreeing to fulfil its international obligation to give these Montagnards a fair refugee status hearing,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, via email.
“Let’s hope that this indicates a change of attitude recognising the Montagnards are fleeing serious rights violations in Vietnam that need to be taken seriously rather than being dismissed in the interest of maintaining fraternal relations between Phnom Penh and Hanoi.”
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, where many of the Montagnards first entered the country, said it was a positive step, but cautioned that based on the government’s previous handling of Montagnard cases, the process would need oversight.
“The government cannot just conclude that they are illegal immigrants by just looking at them; they need to complete the proper process,” he said.
The UNHCR did not respond by press time yesterday.