CAMBODIAN OFFICIALS CONSIDER REFUGEE STATUS FOR THREE MONTAGNARDS


2003-12-29
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PHNOM PENH�The Cambodian Interior Ministry is considering a proposal by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to recognize as refugees three Montagnards who fled from Vietnam to Cambodia, RFA Reports.

�The Ministry of the Interior has received a letter of proposal submitted by the UNHCR in Phnom Penh for [Cambodia�s] full recognition of political refugees,� Interior Ministry Security Chief Sok Phal told RFA�s Khmer service. �We are considering it and will make a decision within the next few days after we check with local authorities for credible information.�

The three Vietnamese Montagnards fled Cambodia from central Vietnam in November and are currently being held as refugees in the Ban Lung district of Ratanakiri Province in northeast Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Ratanakiri Provincial governor H.E. Kham Khoeun told RFA the UNHCR has refused to allow Cambodian police to enter the area to question the Montagnards. �I am not happy with the UNHCR and I sent a letter of complaint to top leaders of the Cambodian Interior Ministry to justify the matter,� he said.

UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh were unavailable for comment.

Last week U.N. human rights envoy Peter Leupretch condemned Cambodian authorities over the forced secret deportation of Vietnamese Montagnards from Cambodia back to Vietnam, citing a violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees. Human rights groups have also expressed fears over deportees facing persecution by Vietnamese authorities.

Following the Vietnam War, the predominantly Christian Montagnards, who aided U.S. troops during the war, saw many of their churches closed and religious books forbidden by Vietnamese authorities. Today the same intolerance for religious freedom exists for the Montagnards, who live mostly in Vietnam�s Central Highlands.

In a statement Dec. 2, Human Rights Watch urged international donors to step up pressure on Vietnam to improve its �dramatically worsening human rights record��including �persecution, unlawful arrest, torture, and other mistreatment of Montagnards who have voluntarily or forcibly been returned from Cambodia to Vietnam.�

Several thousand Montagnards staged protests in February 2001 to call for independence, return of ancestral land, and religious freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive show of force, deploying thousands of police and soldiers and arrested hundreds of indigenous people in the Central Highlands.

More than 1,000 highlanders fled to Cambodia, where they were sheltered in two refugee camps run by the UNHCR. In March 2002, Cambodia authorized the processing for resettlement in the United States of more than 900 Montagnard asylum-seekers who had fled to Cambodia over the preceding year. Cambodia has now closed down its refugee camps, sealed its borders with Vietnam, and announced that any new arrivals will be immediately deported.

Between July and November 2003, at least 60 Vietnamese Montagnards escaped from Vietnam to the jungle of northeast Cambodia.

Currently the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Interior Ministry, and the UNHCR are drafting a refugee law to deal with Montagnards who have fled from Vietnam. #####

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