Cambodia declared Tuesday that the Montagnards who have entered the country illegally, claiming to flee repression in Vietnam are economic, not political, refugees, because they were trafficked into the nation, a government spokesman said.
The Cambodian government is not responsible for the Montagnards, who claim to be seeking asylum based on political and religious persecution, because they were brought into the country by human traffickers for economic purposes, said Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak.
“We can’t avoid taking in refugees, but we must consider the reasons,” he told RFA's Khmer Service. “The Montagnards are fleeing because of economic reasons.”
His comments came after the ministry set a three-month deadline for Montagnards who do not qualify as refugees to return home or be deported.
The Cambodian government has maintained that the nearly 200 Christian indigenous Montagnards who have entered the country illegally from Vietnam’s Central Highlands since late last year are farmers who have come for economic reasons.
Khieu Sopheak said the Montagnards are the responsibility of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which intercepted some of them after they entered Ratanakiri province in remote northeastern Cambodia, where local villagers had provided them with food and shelter.
Scores of Montagnards have emerged from their jungle hideouts with the assurance of protection from the UNHCR, but others have been caught by local authorities and deported back to Vietnam.
The UNHCR said in June that 116 people were awaiting registration for asylum in the capital Phnom Penh.
In mid-July, a dozen Montagnards who had sought refugee status in Cambodia willingly returned to Vietnam after Hanoi gave assurances it would not punish or discriminate against them.
Khieu Sopheak compared the UNHRC’s process of retrieving Montagnards to human trafficking.
“Please consider, I don’t think the Montagnards know about the UNHRC’s head office in Phnom Penh, so there must be someone who is taking them there,” he said, denying that the Montagnards had been persecuted in Vietnam.
Khieu Sopheak also said the Montagnards could not be treated the same as the refugees previously detained by Australia on the small Pacific island Nauru, who were granted asylum in Cambodia in April and arrived in the Southeast Asian nation in June.
The four — an Iranian couple, an Iranian man, and a Rohingya Muslim man from Myanmar — had sought asylum in Australia but were denied entry, being held instead for months in a camp for refugees unwelcome in the country.
In exchange, Australia promised to pay more than U.S. $40 million in costs and aid to Cambodia, drawing criticism from rights groups who noted that Cambodia had forced asylum-seekers from China and Vietnam back home.
Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, pointed out that the Cambodian government has not paid much attention to the Montagnards so far, but urged it to provide fair evaluations of their cases before denying them refugee status.
“If the evaluations are not conducted properly, it will affect the refugees’ rights,” he told RFA.
He also questioned the government’s decision to expel the Montagnards but accept refugees from Nauru.
He said Cambodia is obligated to accept refugees and should not be discriminate against any of them.
Reported by Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translatated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.