The Cambodian government said on Thursday that it has no plan to send the roughly 170 ethnic Montagnards seeking asylum in Cambodia or in a third country back to Vietnam, where they claim to have faced religious persecution.
The announcement contradicted a local media report published the same day, quoting Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak as saying the government would return all the Montagnards temporarily living in the country to Vietnam because they have failed to qualify for refugee status.
“During the interviews, there is an evaluation to determine whether they are truly refugees, economic [immigrants], or have entered Cambodia for other reasons,” he said. “If we determine that they are truly refugees, we will find a third country for them to reside in.”
But Sok Phal, general director of the ministry’s immigration department, said the process of checking the Montagnards’ applications for refugee status had not yet been completed.
In the meantime, the government would not send them back to Vietnam unless they volunteer to return, he said. But if the government determines that they do not meet any of the eligibility requirements, it will send them back to their country of origin.
Thirteen of the Montagnards already have been granted refugee status but have not yet been sent to a third country because they are still waiting for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to arrange their move, Sok Phal said.
Representatives from the UNHCR and Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, told The Cambodia Daily on Wednesday that the registration process for the other members of the groups had not started.
Illegal economic immigrants
A new wave of ethnic Christian Montagnards began entering Cambodia illegally in October 2014, seeking asylum based on allegations that authorities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands had denied them religious rights and persecuted them. Most of them initially hid out in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province.
The Cambodian government, however, branded them illegal economic immigrants who should be sent back across the border.
Some Montagnards were deported, while others returned to Vietnam on their own, disheartened by the long wait for refugee status reviews.
The government announced in late January that the Montagnards, who had been in Cambodia for months awaiting refugee registration, would have their applications processed, following a meeting between Interior Minister Sar Kheng and James Lynch, the UNHCR’s regional representative.
The U.N.’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, to which Cambodia is a signatory, requires countries to process refugee claims.
The government set deadlines for the Montagnards awaiting processing late last year, saying they would have to return to Vietnam voluntarily or be forcibly repatriated.
Reported by Yeang Sothearin and Hong Sokunthea for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Kuhn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.