In its strongest public statement yet on the issue, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said it is “extremely concerned” about reports that Cambodian authorities have been deporting Montagnard asylum seekers before they have a chance to speak with UNHCR staff.
“It is unacceptable for asylum seekers to be forced back to their country of origin without a proper review of their asylum claims,” UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said Tuesday from Geneva.
Some 100 Vietnamese Montagnards seeking refuge in Cambodia have reportedly been deported in recent months, despite assurances from senior government officials here that they would be protected until the UNHCR determined their status.
“It is vital that Cambodian officials—at all levels—implement the humanitarian approach endorsed by Prime Minister [Hun Sen] and other senior officials. The Cambodian government’s pledge to provide temporary asylum must be respected by officials at all levels,” Janowski said.
With the UN’s recovery Wednesday of more than 50 Montagnards hiding along the border between Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, there are now more than 200 hill tribe people under UN protection.
The latest group of Montagnards, who first made themselves known to local human rights workers in Ratanakkiri province before being referred to the UNHCR, remain housed in the provincial capital of Banlung, a rights worker said Thursday.
UNHCR staff in Ratanakkiri have returned to the countryside with a police escort to investigate reports of another large group of Montagnards hiding in the southern part of the province after fleeing unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the rights worker and provincial police officials said.
“It’s still a dangerous situation. Previous cases show that when [the government] gets those people they send them back,” the rights worker said.
UNHCR’s actions were met with anger in Hanoi, where Reuters news service quoted Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh as calling the UNHCR’s involvement “interference” in that country’s internal affairs.
“Any interference from outside can only further complicate the situation,” Phan Thuy Thanh said Wednesday.
In a letter sent Thursday to Hun Sen, the US-based group Refugees International also lobbied Cambodia to prevent future deportations of Montagnard asylum seekers and insist that Vietnam “withdraw its military and police officials from Cambodian territory and stop hunting down refugees.”
Refugees International president emeritus Lionel Rosenblatt suggested that Cambodia’s handling of this issue could impact the willingness of international donors to pledge millions of aid dollars to the country next month.
“Donors will likely react quite favorably to Cambodia meeting its international obligations in this difficult situation,” Rosenblatt wrote.
Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot was the first Phnom Penh diplomat to visit some 165 Montagnards camped in Mondolkiri province.
He said Cambodia’s treatment of Montagnard asylum seekers should not hurt its chances of securing its requested $500 million from donors in Tokyo next month.
“I’m certainly not going to go to the Canadian government and say Cambodia has mishandled the situation; it’s not a black mark,” Mailhot said Thursday, a day after he and several US Embassy personnel traveled to the provincial capital of Sen Monorom.
Another diplomatic official said Thursday that he didn’t think the Montagnard influx “fits in with many of the donor demands,” although he noted that each donor country individually would have to consider the situation.
Mailhot said Cambodia is “caught between a rock and a hard place” trying both to abide by UN refugee conventions and preserve already strained diplomatic ties with Vietnam, which has demanded the return of any hill tribe members crossing the border from the Central Highlands.
Mailhot said that during visits with provincial officials this week he also stressed the need for the government to protect any Montagnards who might be in Cambodia seeking asylum, and siad that despite allegations of recent deportations, he was confident government officials would do so.
“I have to take [their assurances] at face value until I see otherwise,” Mailhot said.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)
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