Cambodia Changes Its Approach to Montagnard Refugees from Vietnam

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A group of Montagnards (foreground) meets with a United Nations team after emerging from their hideout in northeastern Cambodia's Ratanakiri province, Dec. 20, 2014.
A group of Montagnards (foreground) meets with a United Nations team after emerging from their hideout in northeastern Cambodia's Ratanakiri province, Dec. 20, 2014.
AFP Photo/Adhoc

The Cambodian government’s apparent change of heart regarding a group of Montagnards who are seeking asylum as they attempt to flee Vietnam, is being viewed by some human-rights advocates as a sign that Phnom Penh is beginning to take seriously its obligations to refugees.

“Other than sending them back home to Vietnam, the government didn’t seem to want to pay attention to them,” said Sam Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). “Now, there are 13 people that the government has declared refugees that it is aiming to send to the Philippines soon. We see this as a good sign for Cambodia as a member of the International Convention on Refugees.”

The announcement comes after a Wednesday meeting to discuss asylum seekers’ situation  between Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng and James Lynch, the regional representative of the U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR). The 13 Montagnards were selected from the about 200 who crossed into Cambodia in 2014 claiming to have fled persecution in Vietnam.

Interior Department spokesman Kim Sarin confirmed to RFA’s Khmer Service that the Montagnards with refugee status since 2014 were being transferred to the Philippines, but it is unclear where they will ultimately end up. It was also unclear when they would embark for the Philippines. The exact number of Montagnards seeking asylum is also unclear as some were sent back to Vietnam because they lacked the documents to prove they are refugees, Sarin said.

UNHCR representative Vivian Tan in a Dec. 2015 email told RFA that the agency has facilitated the process of sending 52 Montagnards who volunteered to go from Phnom Penh back to Vietnam.

Cambodia has only recognized the 13 Montagnards as refugees, while dozens have been deported and hundreds have been left to twist in the wind as the government refused to process their claims. The U.N.’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, to which Cambodia is a signatory, requires countries to process refugee claims.

The government has set a series of deadlines for the Montagnards awaiting processing saying they have to go back to Vietnam voluntarily or they will be forcibly repatriated.

“If they agreed to register and speed up the process of assessing their status with UNHCR, then that is very good,” Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia told the Phnom Penh Post.

Reported by Sokunthea Hong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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