The government has agreed to allow a group of Montagnard asylum seekers that have been hiding in the jungles of Ratanakkiri for more than a month to apply for refugee status if they are located, the UN human rights office (OHCHR) said yesterday.
Provincial officials had previously vowed to arrest and deport the group of 13 as illegal immigrants if they were found, and had also refused to cooperate with UN officials unless they were granted permission to do so by the Interior Ministry.
However, UN rights representative Wan-Hea Lee said yesterday evening that the government has now agreed to work with her office and the UN refugee office (UNHCR) to find the group.
“The Ministry of the Interior, OHCHR, and HCR have agreed to undertake a joint mission to Ratanakiri [sic] shortly,” she said in an email.
“The Ministry has indicated that it currently has no information about the presence of Montagnards in Ratanakiri [sic]. If their presence is confirmed and they indicate that they wish to apply for asylum, it was agreed that they would be brought to Phnom Penh to enable them to do so, in accordance with the established procedures.’’
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for confirmation yesterday evening, but his ministry released a statement earlier in the day denying reports that Cambodia had plans to deport the Montagnards.
“I absolutely deny this inaccurate information and I consider it as an allegation which shows no responsibility of the individuals or civil society groups [that have made it],” he wrote.
“I would like to stress that so far, there is no real information about any group of Montagnards.”
While the statement did not confirm the UN’s claim, Sopheak quoted a December 5 letter from Interior Minister Sar Kheng to EU Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain, which said the government would be willing to cooperate with the UN when the presence of the group was confirmed.
How the government treats these Montagnards has been viewed as a crucial test of Cambodia’s refugee policies, as it continues to face international scrutiny over a controversial resettlement arrangement with the Australian government.
Cambodia took over refugee processing from UNHCR back in 2009.
Rights advocates yesterday welcomed the government’s decision to cooperate.
“First of all, it’s excellent news that they will work with the UN to allow these people to apply for refugee status determination,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
But, he added, “the key is to ensure that this is a fair and impartial refugee status determination”.
Montagnards are a mostly Christian indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The group of 13 fled Vietnam after allegedly suffering serious persecution on account of their religious beliefs.