Twenty-five Vietnamese Montagnard refugees from a United Nations-administered refugee centre in Phnom Penh departed the country for Canada this afternoon, following the departure of an initial group on Monday.
Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, confirmed today that 25 left the country for Quebec City on Monday and would be joined by 25 later this week, though she did not give the exact date.
“We’re extremely grateful to Canada, because this is a very good opportunity for these people to start lives over and for their children to get a good education,” McKinsey said.
Sister Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services, confirmed that the second group of 25 was set to leave the refugee centre at about 4:30pm today before boarding a plane to Bangkok.
Of the 50 refugees bound for Canada, 37 are members of the Jarai ethnic minority, who also populate parts of northeastern Cambodia, McKinsey said. The group is made up of 32 women and 18 men, who range in age from 57 to two infants born at the refugee centre in the last six months.
The departure of the refugees comes just days ahead of the closure next Tuesday of the Sen Sok district site that had housed them while their asylum claims were under review.
On November 29, the Foreign Ministry wrote to UNHCR to announce that the refugee centre would be shuttered at the end of the year, warning that any Montagnards remaining at the site faced deportation.
The deadline was eventually extended until February 15 following a request from the agency.
The centre contained 76 Montagnards when the closure was announced, 62 of whom were registered refugees.
Since 2001, about 2,000 Montagnards – as Vietnam’s highland ethnic minorities are known – have fled to Cambodia because of alleged persecution by the Vietnamese authorities.
McKinsey said today that four more of the Montagnards would be resettled in the United States.
One has also been accepted into the US as an immigrant.
Ten of the Montagnard asylum seekers had their refugee claims rejected, she said, though it was unclear when they would be deported.
An additional 10 are yet to be fully processed, but despite the looming deadline, McKinsey said she was confident their cases would be resolved.
“We’re working with the Cambodian government and I’m confident we’re going to find solutions for them,” she said.
The closure of the site will bring to an end a 2005 agreement between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR governing the processing of Montagnard asylum seekers.
McKinsey said Cambodia – as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention – had an obligation to fairly process any future asylum claims from Vietnamese Montagnards.
Coughlan from JRS said refugee groups would continue to monitor the situation.
“Anyone who seeks asylum from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or the Congo ... we hope that they’re all treated the same way – that they’re all given the same asylum seeker process,” she said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the government would use “the existing law” – including immigration legislation and the 2009 refugee subdecree – in future cases.
“We will apply our existing legal instruments,” he said.
“Right now, I cannot say any further than this. Let’s take it step by step.”