Twenty out of a group of 22 Uighurs who had applied for asylum through the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in November were detained on 18 December and forcibly deported to China the next day, inciting indignation among rights activists and UNHCR officials.
Two days prior to the deportations, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree transferring responsibility for the determination of refugee applications from UNHCR to the government.
The following day, UNHCR vehicles were to be used to bring the 20 Uighurs to a safe house under joint government-UNHCR administration. However, that night the asylum seekers were allegedly forced at gunpoint to board Cambodian police vehicles and flown out the following night to an unknown destination in China. The whereabouts of the two remaining Uighurs are unknown.
Lambs to slaughter
Sr Denise Coughlan, JRS Cambodia Director, who was involved in the Uighur case, said she was shocked at the Cambodian government’s apparent reversal after formally requesting UNHCR assistance to determine the status of the Uighur group and offering to provide them with a safe house while their applications were pending.
“Like sheep going to the slaughter, the people went to the safe house clearly believing they were going to be protected,” Sr Coughlan added.
According to Sr Coughlan, UNHCR involvement will continue to be an important element of Cambodia’s adherence to the convention. Regardless of what the sub-decree says, it is essential UNHCR remain involved in the refugee-status-determination process, there be no infringement of the right to asylum in Cambodia, and due procedures be followed, the JRS director added.
Sara Colm, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated the deportation had challenged optimism that the transfer of asylum cases to the government would turn Cambodia into a safe haven for refugees.