Cambodia’s actions in the ongoing case of a group of Vietnamese ethnic minorities suggests the country’s capacity and willingness to protect asylum seekers remains weak. A group was transferred to the capital, Pnom Penh, in recent weeks to have their claims processed which, refugee advocates say, will be a “test” for the Cambodian government as it prepares to welcome some 1,000 refugees from Australian detention centres.
Thirteen Montagnards, or “mountain dwellers,” an umbrella term used for ethnic minorities that live in Vietnam’s hilly regions, hid in the remote forest of Cambodia’s northeastern Ratanakiri Province for October, November, and much of December. Officials from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) attempted to meet the Montagnards on 5 December and 11 December, but despite blessings from Phnom Penh, local authorities thwarted such efforts by blocking the team’s access.
Montagnards have seen a history of abuses in Vietnam, where they face not only ethnicity-based discrimination but also persecution on religious grounds.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, conducted a mission to Vietnam in July 2014 and is expected to present his findings to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015.
He confirmed to IRIN that “numerous ethnic minority churches in Vietnam Central Highlands were forced to close and their pastors were arrested and imprisoned. A lot of them are forced to flee or go into hiding after mass protests calling for land rights and religious freedom. Some were also forced to denounce their faith or leave their villages.”
According a member of the joint UN-government team that sought out the Montagnards in the Cambodian jungle, anonymous phone calls alerted them to the specific locations of those hiding, and they were able to locate them by 20 December. The team then escorted them to the capital on 21 December, where they can file asylum claims.
However, given Cambodia’s knotty history of dealing with refugees, including deporting 89 Montagnards in 2001 and returning a group of Muslim minority asylum seekers to China in 2009, closing a facility that housed Montagnard asylum seekers in 2010, and the October 2014 deal signed with Australia to accept refugees from its Nauru detention centre, observers are watching with skepticism.
“The treatment of the Montagnard asylum seekers who have recently emerged from hiding will indeed be a test of the Cambodian government's willingness to properly assess and protect refugees,” Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, told IRIN.
A history of blunders
“There is no safe haven for Montagnards in Cambodia or Vietnam and their forced repatriations are evidence that the Government of Cambodia is not willing to protect Montagnard asylum seekers,” said Rong Nay, director of the US-based Montagnard Human Rights Organization, adding that there are more than 150 Montagnard asylum seekers currently in Thailand, some of whom fled directly from Vietnam and others who fled from poor conditions in Cambodia.
According to Vivian Tan, UNHCR regional press officer in Bangkok: “What’s important is that the group [of 13 Montagnards now in Phnom Penh] is now able to access the asylum process and have their claims heard. The government’s Refugee Department is registering them and will process their asylum applications.”
However, others remain concerned, and point to the government’s regional politicking as a worrying aspect of its handling of refugees.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told IRIN: “Cambodia still plays games with deciding which refugees to accept and which to try and push back… Where pressure from Thailand, Vietnam, or China comes into the picture, all of a sudden Cambodian refugee protection becomes a whole lot less likely, and subject to external factors.”
Cambodia is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, Robertson argued that the government too often bows to regional pressures from its neighbours instead of interpreting the Convention to uphold its core principles.
“Cambodia’s leaders don’t have the notion embedded in their mind that the Refugee Convention means that asylum seekers deserve equal treatment, no matter if they come from a remote country or a nation right next door,” he said.
In this case, the tangled relationships between Vietnam and Cambodia, as well local and national authorities inside Cambodia appear to be complicating the situation. In early December, the Ratanakiri Province chief of police told reporters that Vietnamese authorities had provided the Cambodian authorities with a list of Montagnards who fled their homes, and requested they be found and returned to Vietnam.
The spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior declined IRIN’s request for an interview.