An international human rights group has called on Cambodia to stop treating Montagnards who claim to be fleeing persecution in Vietnam as “illegal aliens” and summarily deporting them, as four members of the Christian minority group arrived in the Cambodian capital to ask the United Nations for protection.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on Sunday saying the Cambodian government should abide by its international obligations not to return Vietnamese and other asylum seekers to countries where they face persecution.
“The Cambodian government is once again using abusive tricks to evade its iron-clad legal responsibilities to make sure that asylum seekers enjoy their right to a fair and impartial assessment of their claims to be refugees,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government is putting these people’s lives and well-being at risk by forcing back those it arrests, and putting those who are forced into hiding at risk of starvation, disease, and exposure.”
The announcement came as four Montagnards who had fled a police raid in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province arrived in Phnom Penh on Sunday to ask the U.N. to for asylum to protect them from persecution back in Vietnam.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator of the rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the four were among a group of nine Montagnards, five of whom were arrested but whose whereabouts remained unknown.
A villager from Ratanakiri , who had accompanied the four Montagnards, but declined to be identified for security reasons, told RFA that although they were safe, the U.N. had not yet collected them in Phnom Penh, where they intended to seek asylum.
“They are afraid of persecution,” he said. “They went to Phnom Penh to ask the U.N for help. I just helped them out of the jungle for their security,” he said.
There are 23 more Montagnards still in hiding in the jungle in Ratanakiri province, fearful that authorities will deport them, HRW said.
Last week, Cambodian authorities deported a family of five Montagnards to Vietnam’s Central Highlands after they were discovered in Ratanakiri province.
Acknowledge their existence
HRW called on Cambodia’s donor countries to press the government to acknowledge the existence of the asylum-seeking Montagnards and fairly determine their claims for refugee status.
The group accused Cambodian authorities of preventing the U.N. and human rights advocates of learning about the family because it detained them incommunicado, saying that it was part of a larger pattern.
“These individuals are thus prevented from giving their accounts—not only to these agencies, but also to the government’s own refugee status determination service,” the statement said. “This has left the government free to falsely maintain there are no asylum seekers in Ratanakiri.”
HRW noted that the government had reversed its policies since last December, when it allowed 16 ethnic Jarai Christian asylum seekers from Vietnam to go to Phnom Penh and have access to the government’s refugee status determination process.
HRW said people who work on asylum seeker and refugee issues in Cambodia informed it that the policy shift resulted from pressure on Cambodia from the Vietnamese government, which wanted to reduce the amount of international attention paid to human rights violations in Vietnam.
Cambodian authorities also have threatened nongovernmental organization staff trying to help Montagnards from Vietnam in Ratanakiri province, and they do not cooperate with Phnom Penh-based U.N. agencies, HRW said.
Kem Sarin, director of the Ministry of Interior’s refugee office, which carries out refugee status determinations, rejected HRW’s criticism.
He said the Cambodian government had deported the five Montagnards because of pressure from Vietnam.
“HRW has the right to speak out, but they must reconsider [what they have said].” he said.
Refugees without proper paperwork are deported back to Vietnam, Kem Sarin said, adding that the Montagnards have provided no evidence to support their assertion that they are being persecuted in their home country.
“They make the allegations, but they don’t provide documents,” he said. “They only make the claims.”
He also said the Montagnards would not be protected in Cambodia until they had submitted requests for refugee status.
“They must submit requests for refugee status; otherwise, they are not refugees,” he said.
Deporting the Montagnards before allowing them to apply for asylum violates the 1951 Refugee Convention, HRW and other rights groups say.
Cambodia signed the convention in 1992, agreeing to allow all asylum seekers access to asylum procedures.
Cambodian provincial authorities and Interior Ministry officials, however, view the Montagnards as illegal immigrants and threaten them with arrest and deportation.
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.