Seven Montagnards who have been deemed refugees by the Cambodian government will soon be flown to the Philippines, according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The fate of another 29 – whom the UNHCR has said have well-founded fears of persecution – hangs in the balance after their refugee claims were rejected, a decision UNHCR deemed “a grave error in judgment”.
The UNHCR’s assistant regional representative, Alistair Boulton, yesterday confirmed that the Philippines was “the location of our emergency transit mechanism [but] not the final destination”. He said “traditional resettlement countries are final destination”, but declined to name them, citing the “precariousness of their situation in Cambodia”.
Thirteen Montagnards who were also recognised as refugees after they fled Vietnam through the forests of Ratanakkiri in late 2014 were sent to the Philippines in May last year.
The Montagnards are a mostly Christian mountain ethnic group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. In 2014 and 2015, hundreds escaped into Cambodia fleeing imprisonment and persecution. The majority have been returned to Vietnam, except for a group of 50 who fled to Thailand earlier this year.
Boulton said the UNHCR was trying to relocate the 29 rejected refugees, despite Cambodian authorities claiming the government has “no right” to transfer them to another country.
“We think the simplest solution consistent with international legal principles is for the Cambodian government to let UNHCR take the individuals out of the country to where they want to go and will be safe. We’ve made and stand by this offer,” Boulton said.
“There is no reason the Refugee Department should insist on the individuals returning against their will to Vietnam. Cambodian law does not require it and international law forbids it where there is a risk to life or freedom on return.”
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the 13 flown to the Philippines last year were now on “the glide path to a new life, safe from the persecution they faced in Vietnam”. However, the “fundamental problem” was Cambodia’s failure to recognise that the 29 had similarly strong claims.
“The Cambodian government should recognize that Vietnam is setting them up as the fall guy for Hanoi’s continued poor treatment of the Montangards,” he said via email.
He urged the Cambodian government to allow the 29 to be taken abroad “because this is the right thing to do and it will save them from a big headache with the international community”.