There was no progress made at talks held March 12 between representatives from the
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments
over the fate of 1,000 Montagnard refugees currently in Cambodia.
The talks in Ho Chi Minh City concluded with Vietnam refusing to allow UNHCR access
to the Central Highlands, which is home to the refugees. The agency's policy is to
insist on access "pre-return, during return and post-return". UNHCR describes
it as a minimum safeguard, and will not go ahead without such assurances.
The Vietnamese delegation was reportedly annoyed that previous access had resulted
in only a handful of refugees returning. That, they felt, was insufficient.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said he was "very disappointed" at the lack
"We hoped that there would be agreement, especially by Vietnam, to resume the
voluntary repatriation scheme," he said. "That's the principle point of
impasse - the Vietnamese refused UNHCR, as I understand it, to resume their visits
to the Central Highlands. Without that they simply can't do any repatriation."
At a press conference earlier this month, the under-secretary of state at the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Sieng Lapresse, accused UNHCR of trafficking refugees
across the border from Vietnam. His comments followed strong criticism of the government's
deportation of 63 asylum seekers March 2, which is contrary to the Cambodian government's
international commitments under the 1951 refugee convention.
"The incident that alleged deportation [of 63 asylum seekers] under the objection
of staff from UNHCR - we deny that," Lapresse said March 6. Further questioning
revealed a fundamental difference between the government and UNHCR over the term
"You can call [sending back the refugees] whatever you want," Lapresse
said, "but when it comes to the sovereignty of Cambodia and national security,
we have no means to identify criminals and other traffickers of people. So therefore
it is natural for us to do whatever [we can] to stop [this]."
The authorities' action drew a strong response from the UN's special representative
for human rights, Peter Leuprecht, who visited the country that weekend. In a statement
released March 4, Leuprecht stated he was "deeply concerned by the forced deportation
. . . over the objections of [UNHCR] staff".
"These deportations are a clear violation of the 1951 Convention on Refugees,
to which Cambodia is a party," his statement read. "The non-refoulement
principle in this convention states that asylum seekers should not be returned to
a country where they face a well-founded fear of persecution."
Leuprecht urged the government to "fully uphold its international obligations"
contained in the convention, and stated that "no asylum seekers should be forcibly
Wiedemann said March 14 that the interim period had left him more optimistic the
Cambodian government would stand by its international commitments. He felt the events
of March 2 were unlikely to be repeated.
"I have had continued assurances from the Cambodians as early as this morning
that they will continue to honor the convention," said Wiedemann. "There
are some indications, too, that their actions a couple of weeks ago might not happen
The next meeting between the three sides is set for May 31.