A Cambodian official on Friday addressed an appeal by an international human rights group not to deport ethnic Montagnard Christians who are seeking refugee status in the Southeast Asian nation to Vietnam, saying that they first must apply for the status and meets its conditions.
Kem Sarin, director of the Ministry of Interior's refugee office, which carries out refugee status determinations, told RFA’s Khmer Service that so far only 13 Montagnards of the more than 100 who had fled to the country from Vietnam since late last year had requested asylum, but that the ministry had not received any actual applications yet.
The Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, who say they are fleeing political and religious persecution in their home country, have entered Cambodia illegally to seek refugee status. Most have hidden in Ratanakiri province in the remote northeast of the country. Some have been caught and deported back to Vietnam.
Kem Sarin said his office could consider granting asylum status any time base on the applications, but he declined to provide details about the deportation process.
"Before we make any decisions to deport immigrants, we must first examine their applications to see whether they meet refugee status requirements,” he said. “If they qualify, we will give them the status.”
Kem Sarin was responding to a call issued by New York-based human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday for the Cambodian government to give the Montagnards and other asylum seekers from Vietnam an opportunity to apply for refugee status and receive fair determinations.
A news release that HRW issued noted that from late last year through June 2015, Cambodia forcibly returned 54 Montagnards to Vietnam without letting them apply for refugee status. The country denied at least another 118 Montagnards the possibility of registering as asylum seekers, it said.
“Montagnards and others fleeing persecution in Vietnam should be allowed to make claims for asylum in Cambodia and other neighboring countries without being illegally forced back,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok, told RFA last week that 116 people were awaiting registration in Phnom Penh.
“We have alerted the authorities and hope that these individuals can be registered as asylum-seekers as soon as possible,” she said.
News conference canceled
HRW had been scheduled to hold a news conference in Bangkok on Friday to release a report on the Vietnamese government’s religious and political persecution of the Montagnards, which has forced them to seek political asylum in Cambodia and Thailand.
The report details how the Montagnards are subject to constant surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and mistreatment in custody.
The group’s release said such persecution “reflects broader rights violations against religious minorities.”
The news release went on to note that Tran Dai Quang, Vietnam’s public security minister, met with Sar Kheng on Jan. 16 in Phnom Penh to sign agreements that included provisions on security cooperation in border areas against people who fled across the border for refuge.
HRW planned to hold a press conference on Friday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok to discuss the report, but the day before the event, it received word that the country’s National Council on Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta that has ruled Thailand following last year’s coup d’état, had banned the event.
Despite a lack of formal written notification, HRW planned to press ahead with the conference, but issued a brief statement on Friday about its forced cancellation.
“By stepping in to defend a neighboring state’s human rights violations against a group of its people and interrupting a scheduled press conference, Thailand’s military junta is violating freedom of assembly and demonstrating its contempt for freedom of the press,” the statement said.
“This action today is just the latest indication that Thailand is choosing to side with dictatorships in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] while further stepping up repression at home,” it said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.