As Cambodia faces increasing scrutiny over its controversial refugee agreement with Australia, its response to a group of Montagnards seeking asylum from alleged persecution in Vietnam could prove to be a crucial test.
An ethnic Jarai villager, who asked not to be named, told the Post on Monday that 13 Montagnards are hiding in a forest in Ratanakkiri province. “A few of them were already jailed for between one and two months in Vietnam,” he said, explaining that the group had been persecuted over their Christian beliefs before fleeing to the Kingdom. “They are hiding in the forest in fear of arrest by the Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities.”
The villager added that more than 10 police officials and security guards have been searching the area since Thursday.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that while Montagnards are discriminated against in Vietnam, Cambodia too has “an extremely poor record” of protecting them and “has repeatedly caved in to Hanoi’s demands to forcibly return” them.
Robertson said that if the authorities catch the group, it is likely that they would be repatriated. But, he said, following Cambodia’s widely criticised deal to resettle refugees processed in Australian detention centres on the island of Nauru, pressure should be on the two countries to ensure their protection.
Australian Ambassador Alison Burrows should “move quickly to stop any refoulement of the Montangards that will further damage Cambodia’s already shoddy record of protecting refugees”, Robertson said.
The Australian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said that Australia would in fact favour deportation of the group.
“What Australia’s looking for is a country that’s not going to protect the refugees.… [It hopes] that they will be sent to a state that will never protect them,” he said.
Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Nguon Kourn said yesterday evening that, on the orders of the Ministry of Interior, his officials were still searching for the group.
“After finding them, we will ask the ministry what we should do,” he said.
Ministry officials could not be reached.
Vivian Tan, press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, said that “UNHCR advocates that they should not be sent back to a place where their lives or freedoms could be in danger, and will cooperate closely with the Cambodian Government to ensure that those in need of international protection receive it”.