The number of asylum-seekers arriving in Cambodia has slowed to a relative trickle since the government’s 2009 assumption of registration duties from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with some rights groups pointing to the Kingdom’s track record with refugees as the reason.
Montagnard hill tribesmen walk towards a main road after crossing the Vietnam-Cambodia border and emerging from dense forest 70 kilometres northeast of Ban Lung, in Ratanakikiri province, in 2004.
Reports released over the past month by Human Rights Watch and The Hague-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation criticised the Cambodian refugee office for not providing sufficient protections for asylum-seekers here.
Arrivals of asylum-seekers had been steadily decreasing, from 250 in 2008 and 64 in 2009 to 48 in 2010 and just 10 in 2011, UNHCR spokesperson for Cambodia May Fong Choong said.
Application numbers were down but the percentage of successful applications had risen, she said, with 64 per cent accepted as refugees in 2011 and 26 per cent in 2010, compared with 37 per cent in 2009 and 16 per cent of 2008’s 250 – a number swollen by Montagnards from Vietnam.
The Ministry of Interior’s Cambodian Refugee Office took over the registration and processing of applicants from the UNHCR following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s signing of a sub-decree in December, 2009.
The timing of the sub-decree was widely panned by human-rights groups due to the deportation of a group of Uighurs a few days later.
Last week, Amnesty International confirmed that 16 of the 20 deported had been tried in China, and four had received life sentences.
In December, 2010, the government announced a January 1, 2011, closing date for the UNHCR’s Sen Sok centre, where some Montagnards were awaiting processing and refugee status that would have allowed them to resettle in another country.
The threatened closure, ultimately extended to February, left 20 Montagnards in limbo.
Ten were resettled in a third country, while the other 10 were to be deported to Vietnam. The final two Montagnard asylum-seekers were voluntarily repatriated to Vietnam in July last year, Choong said.
HRW’s World Report 2012: Cambodia, released on January 23, states that “asylum seekers, especially from Vietnam and China, remain at risk of forced repatriation in violation of the Refugee Convention”, referring to the closure of the Sen Sok refugee centre and the deportation of the Uighurs.
A separate UNPO report released on February 2 referred to bilateral agreements the Vietnamese government had with Thailand and Cambodia to “forcefully repatriate” Degar Montagnard peoples.
Choong said a tripartite memorandum of understanding – separate from the government’s main refugee registration process – was signed in 2005 between UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia to find a solution for resettlement of the Montagnards outside Cambodia, with no specific date set for its resolution.
Meanwhile, human rights groups say the decreased numbers of asylum seekers can be attributed to awareness of the government’s policies.
“From the start, the situation has been handled poorly. There have been fewer cases (of forced deportation) reported recently because asylum seekers know that Cambodia is not a safe haven,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak.
Kok Ksor, president of the US-based Montagnard Foundation, echoed that sentiment, saying the Cambodian government has, in the past, been known to ally with the Vietnamese government “to hurt Degar people”.
“To us, the Cambodian government is like the Vietnamese government; it doesn’t make any difference,” he said.
HRW Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson highlighted the political relationships influencing Cambodia’s treatment of refugees.
“The actual implementation of the sub-decree has been sub-par, lacksadaisical, and determined by political factors connected to the Cambodian government’s relations with the government of the country from which the refugee is fleeing,” he said.
“The sub-decree permits unacceptably wide discretion to officials to arbitrarily deny claims on vague grounds not connected to the merits of the refugees’ claim.”
In 2009, HRW criticised the sub-decree for failing to include the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of what constitutes a refugee and lacking safeguards against forced returns of refugees, which is illegal under international law.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be contacted for comment yesterday, but Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Koung said he did not know why fewer asylum seekers were coming to the Kingdom, saying they had their own reasons.
When asked about Cambodia’s agreements with other countries concerning refugees, he said Cambodia’s tripartite MOU with Vietnam and UNHCR was the only one he knew about.
He declined to comment on Cambodia’s policy toward asylum seekers.
Despite the criticisms, Choong said she is satisfied with the overall progress of the office so far and that UNHCR officials meet with them regularly to provide support and consultation.
“The refugee office is very functional and plays a pro-active role in promoting the economic and social rights of refugees,” she said.
“It’s a big step for them, but they want to come onboard,” she said.