In recent months dozens of ethnic minority Montagnard people from Vietnam have crossed the border into Cambodia complaining of harassment by the Vietnamese authorities. Most are still hiding out in the forests in northeastern Cambodia, fearful that the Cambodian authorities will deport them - contrary to the country’s international obligations.
More than 50 Montagnard asylum-seekers are believed to have crossed into Cambodia in recent months, yet just 13 are having their asylum claims assessed by the government in Phnom Penh.
Most of the rest are hiding out in the forests of Cambodia’s northeast near the border with Vietnam, fearful that the Cambodian authorities will deport them.
Under the Refugee Convention, Cambodia must assess the claims of all asylum-seekers, but it’s not doing that, said Wan-Hea Lee, the country representative for the U.N.’s human rights office.
Little more than a week ago, local authorities in northeastern Ratanakiri province prevented Lee’s staff from trying to find the asylum-seekers and assist them. The same thing happened in December.
Lee said the actions of provincial officials could be blamed on the lack of a clear message from the powerful central government. She said that meant officials in the northeast were unsure how to proceed.
“At the local level, the national level, the different departments, officials that are involved, they don’t have the sense that it’s safe for them to proceed and actually grant them that right to the procedure. So everybody is sort of looking at the other and waiting for signs for a green light, which up to now hasn’t been coming,” she said.
In addition to the 13 asylum-seekers, who say they fled religious persecution, and whose claims are being assessed by the government’s refugee office in Phnom Penh, 10 more are waiting on the department to register them. The U.N. says more than 30 others are believed to be in hiding.
Earlier this month, Cambodian authorities deported at least one Montagnard family, including three children, without assessing their claims, describing them as economic migrants.
A recent public letter by the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, William Todd, reminded the Cambodian government that the international community was concerned at the treatment of the Christian minority Montagnards.
Kem Sarin, who heads the Cambodian government’s refugee office at the Ministry of Interior, insisted that Phnom Penh stood by its position that all foreigners seeking asylum would have their applications properly assessed.
“The government is willing to [process] all foreigners who are applying for the asylum-seekers. We don’t say especially for just Montagnards. Any other foreigner who approach application to us for asylum-seeker, government will process their document,” said Sarin.
When asked why the authorities in the northeast have threatened to deport Montagnards, Kem Sarin said that was different.
“These people they are not apply for asylum-seeker [status] so why did they not do the procedure? They don’t apply. We don’t receive any application. They are - I don’t know. That is the authority of the province - you couldn’t ask me about this,” said Kem.
Although Cambodia appears to be flouting its obligations under the Refugee Convention, its position is tricky.
Rights groups have long complained that Vietnam’s government oppresses its minority groups, which pushes people into Cambodia.
The close relationship between Hanoi and Phnom Penh means Vietnam is likely exerting pressure on Cambodia. Cambodia recently threatened to deport even those Montagnards granted refugee status unless a third country agreed to take them.
The U.N.’s Wan-Hea Lee said that, more than ever, Cambodia’s actions were in the spotlight. That was because of the controversial deal Cambodia signed with Australia last year to take refugees from Australia in exchange for millions in aid.
“Cambodia today is a country that I think understands that it needs to show that it will abide by the terms of the Convention, more so today than that at any other point because it signed this bilateral deal, because it’s pledged time and time again that it would abide by the Convention. And this is for, in the eyes of many, many people, a test case of whether that commitment will be followed through,” she said.
Despite that public attention, the U.N. human rights office has failed to start a two-way discussion with senior members of the Cambodian government.
Until the central government tells local officials they are to abide by the terms of the Refugee Convention, it seems unlikely that much will change on the ground.