Cambodia: NGOs concerned for the fate of asylum seekers

28 February 2011

After the closure of the centre for Montagnard asylum seekers in February 2011, NGOs worry about the fate of new arrivals, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AFP)

Phnom Penh, 28 February 2011– Following the closure of the centre managed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on 15 February, human rights organisations have called on the Cambodian government to ensure it offers protection to asylum seekers.

Seventy Montagnards, part of ethnic minority tribes from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, had been housed at the facility in Phnom Penh. Late last year, the government ordered UNHCR to close the centre by 1 January, saying that the Montagnards would either need to be resettled in third countries or returned to Vietnam. This deadline was later extended to 15 February.

According to UNHCR, 55 Montagnards had been resettled in Canada and the US before the deadline, while a further 10 are currently awaiting settlement. The applications for the remaining 10 were unsuccessful and are to be sent back to Vietnam.

The director of Jesuit Refugee Service, Denise Coghlan, described the decision to close the centre as a positive step; she said it was an imperfect set-up that essentially saw the asylum seekers confined to the centre, living in limbo as their refugee statuses remained up in the air.

“Some people were in a closed site for six years, so I think it’s very good that it’s now finished,” Sr Coghlan said.

Coghlan was among the most vocal critics when Cambodia chose to deport the Uighurs in late 2009. Now, she said, she’s hopeful the government will give due process to future asylum seekers.

“Like most laws, something’s written down and we have to see how it’s implemented. I hope it will be implemented in a humane way and according to the principle and spirit of the UN conventions, she said.

Human Rights Watch concerned 

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that after the refugee centre closes, the Cambodian government will screen future Montagnard asylum seekers under a procedure that does not meet international standards.

The Human Rights Watch statement criticised the sub-decree passed by the Cambodian government in December 2009 as it fails to incorporate the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of what constitutes a refugee and further lacks provisions to fulfil the country’s other obligations as a signatory state.

With insufficient procedural protections in place to prevent unlawful forced returns, the sub-decree provides Cambodian authorities great leeway to reject and expel asylum seekers.

Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible reports of persecution of Montagnards in Vietnam, where more than 300 have been imprisoned since 2001 for peaceful expression of their religious or political views, or for trying to seek asylum in Cambodia.

Explore more