CAMBODIA: Rights groups protest at order to close UN refugee site

PHNOM PENH, 17 December 2010 (IRIN) – The Cambodian government has ordered the closure of a UN site holding dozens of Montagnard refugees from Vietnam, in a move that rights groups say is politically motivated and potentially dangerous for those whose status has yet to be determined.

The facility houses 76 refugees and asylum-seekers from Vietnam who are members of that country’s highland ethnic minorities. Rights groups claim the Montagnards face ethnic and religious persecution by the Vietnamese government.

A majority – 62 – at the site have qualified for resettlement but the case of 14 others has yet to be determined.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia will repatriate to Vietnam the remaining Montagnards, including the new arrivals and those awaiting interview, on a date to be notified in due course,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated.

In a letter dated 29 November, but not obtained by the press until this week, the government wrote to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), ordering it to close the site on 1 January.

On 17 December, however, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that the government would extend the deadline to 15 February as a “favour” to the UN.

“We’re still trying to verify this officially, but if this is true it would be very good news as this is exactly what we were asking the Cambodian government to do,” Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told IRIN from Ho Chi Minh City.

Claims of persecution

Since 2001, some 2,000 Motagnards have fled to Cambodia following government crackdowns in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Many have resettled in third countries through Cambodia but others have been arrested and deported to Vietnam, the group says.

It has not yet been clarified by either the government or UN whether the cases of the 14 without resettlement countries were rejected or undecided.

If the latter, repatriating them would be a violation of Cambodia’s signed commitment to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, requiring it to protect refugees fleeing persecution.

Under the convention, “Cambodia has a clear obligation… to ensure that the 14 Montagnard asylum-seekers are permitted to enter a refugee screening determination process that is fair and based on international standards”, Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, a local rights group, maintained that the Cambodian government was sending a clear message: “Cambodia will not be a place to receive” political refugees.

His group tied the government’s demanded closure to a visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Phnom Penh last month in which trade deals were emphasized.

The decision to close the refugee site “is further evidence that the treatment of political refugees in Cambodia is secondary to the [government’s] political and economic prerogative”, the group said in a letter released on 15 December.

Uighur deportation

Rights groups say the Montagnard case follows the pattern of the Cambodian government’s widely criticized move to forcibly repatriate 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers to China on 19 December 2009 – immediately after the announcement of a US$1.2 billion aid package from Beijing.

“With the Uighurs, the Cambodian government blatantly disregarded its obligation under the Convention by failing to conduct a refugee screening determination, and it’s up to UNHCR and concerned governments like the US and EU and others to pressure the Cambodian government to ensure that Montagnards don’t suffer a repeat performance of what the Uighurs faced,” Robertson said.

News reports inside China stated that four of the Uighurs were executed and 14 jailed.

Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong has rejected claims that political pressure was the motivation for the UN site’s closure.

“No one has influence on Cambodia’s policy,” he told the Phnom Penh Post. “We decided to close it down on our own.”

Cambodia says Vietnam doesn’t have refugee issue, but will let hill tribe members stay longer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia said Friday it will allow 62 Vietnamese refugees to stay in the country a few more weeks as a favour to the U.N. refugee agency but believes they no longer face any danger in Vietnam and can be sent back.

Cambodia previously gave the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees a New Year’s Day deadline to close a refugee compound in the Cambodian capital. But the country will now give the agency until Feb. 15 instead, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said.

“Vietnam is speeding up its economic growth. There is no war and no bombs, therefore Vietnam should not have any refugees,” Hor Namhong told reporters. “For the refugees who have not been granted asylum, they must be sent back to Vietnam. They cannot stay in Cambodia.”

The Foreign Ministry notified the UNHCR this month it planned to shut the housing compound Jan. 1 and send the residents home. Cambodia wants to close the compound in Phnom Penh to deter more arrivals.

The UNHCR pleaded for a little more time to help resettle the refugees.

“We’ll do them a favour. Prime Minister Hun Sen decided to postpone the deadline,” the foreign minister said.

Thousands of hill tribe people known as Montagnards fled to Cambodia since 2001, when Vietnam cracked down on protests against land confiscation and religious restrictions.

The current group is the last batch of asylum-seekers from 1,812 Vietnamese hill tribe people taken in by the UNHCR since 2006. The agency has resettled 999, mostly in the United States, and sent 751 home.

Many Montagnards sided with the United States during the Vietnam War, attend Protestant churches not recognized in Vietnam and are generally distrusted by the communist government.