Immigration officials yesterday sought to dial back public remarks by Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, who on Wednesday appeared to tell reporters that the more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers currently waiting to have their claims assessed would be summarily deported.
Speaking to the press in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, Sopheak said that of the Montagnards who had not been granted refugee status, “the majority of them fail [the refugee status test] because they came illegally”, adding that the government would deport them to Vietnam.
“We cannot keep them any longer,” he said.
Yesterday, however, the head of the General Department of Immigration, Sok Phal, insisted that the government was committed to properly assessing the Montagnards' refugee claims, noting that it would “need time” to do so.
“We will start interviews [to find] the true context as to whether they should go back to Vietnam or not, but right now it hasn’t started yet,” he said, adding that he didn’t know when the process would start.
Sopheak himself yesterday maintained he had been misquoted in the press and threatened to “file a complaint”, although a transcript of his comments taken at the scene by a Post reporter matched those published elsewhere.
Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, which works with the asylum seekers, predicted yesterday that assessment interviews would begin sometime in March.
“Some of the people here have strong claims to refugee status and should not be deported,” she said in an email. “To do so would be breaking international law.”