Facing financial constraints and a steep decline in asylum seekers to Cambodia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cut its office by 80 per cent at the beginning of this year, a UN official said yesterday.
“The UNHCR office in Cambodia has expanded and shrunk over the years based on the needs in-country. Before the downsizing, we had just over 10 people in our office. We now have 2 positions as well as support from our regional office in Bangkok,” UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan wrote in an email.
According to Tan, the shift is part of a long-term plan to improve the government-run Refugee Office. The body, which is operated by the Ministry of Interior, has come under fire in past years for its handling of politically sensitive asylum cases.
Tan said the cutback would have minimal effect on asylum seekers and stressed that the UN would continue to monitor operations of the government office – which has handled applications since 2009.
“Even with a reduced office presence in Cambodia, UNHCR will continue to be able to maintain close contacts with the authorities, exercise our supervisory functions and monitor situations in which a risk of [forced repatriation] may arise.”
Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, said yesterday that she was not surprised by the decision given the global changes in refugee populations.
“On the UNHCR side, it’s probably a sensible thing to do,” she said, noting that refugee concerns in Syria and Myanmar were requiring increasing attention.
Asked if she felt the Refugee Office was sufficiently prepared to handle cases with less independent input, however, Sister Coghlan remained more circumspect.
“Whether I think the UNHCR has trained the government to do so is quite another matter. We just have to wait and see. We just hope. We will certainly be monitoring the situation.”
The number of people seeking refuge in Cambodia has dropped precipitously from 250 in 2008 to just two last year. Rights groups have pointed to the dip as evidence of poorly implemented asylum policies, which have seen political exigencies put ahead of refugee conventions. In 2008, for instance, just 16 per cent of those 250 people were granted asylum.
Most who were rejected were Montagnards who faced ethnic and religious persecution but still found themselves forcibly repatriated to Vietnam. Two years later, the government labelled 20 Uighur asylum seekers “illegal immigrants” and sent them back to certain death in China just days after taking over registration duties from the UNHCR.
The government’s unwillingness to adhere to basic refugee conventions is a possible explanation for the downsizing, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
“Sadly, I interpret UNHCR’s action as recognising the sorry reality of refugee protection in Cambodia, and the lack of interest by the government in improving the situation. Cambodia is one of the few countries in the region to ratify the Refugees Convention, but this has hardly translated into real protection for refugees who find themselves in the Kingdom,” he said, pointing to the Montagnard and Uighur cases as proof positive of the government’s unwillingness to enact real protections.
“Refugees have now smartened up about Cambodia, and not surprisingly, what we’re seeing now is many refugees from Vietnam just transit [through] Cambodia on their way to the UNHCR office in Bangkok.”
Asked whether the changes would impact the Refugee Office, director Sok Vichea said he had “no idea how to answer the question,” and said he was unable to address queries about the government’s handling of refugees.
To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at [email protected]