Montagnards pose with signs calling for help from the international community to stop Cambodia from deporting them to Vietnam.
Montagnards pose with signs calling for help from the international community to stop Cambodia from deporting them to Vietnam. Photo supplied

Refugee review skipped

Cambodian authorities allegedly reneged on an agreed-upon joint review with the United Nations’ refugee body for 29 Montagnard asylum seekers who were informed last week of their imminent deportation to Vietnam.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Alistair Boulton yesterday confirmed “a joint review had been agreed and did not take place” after the government first rejected the Montagnards’ claims.

The UNHCR have said the 29 “have good grounds for fearing persecution”, and that the rejection of their claims was “a grave error in judgment”.

Refugee Department Director Tan Sovichea could not be reached yesterday, but in an interview on Monday said the UNHCR had no say in granting refugee status, which was up to the Cambodian government under sub-decree 224.

However, that same sub-decree also provides that a refugee “shall not be expelled or returned . . . to the frontiers of territories where his or her life, freedom or rights would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or particular political opinion”.

The Montagnards are a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s Central Highlands who have faced persecution from their government.

Interior Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Kim Lek yesterday did not address the question of the joint review, but confirmed he had received a letter from the UNHCR asking the government to allow 29 asylum seekers to be taken to a third country.

“But it is beyond our ability because we already interviewed [them] legally in the right way. Four were accepted, but for the rest, [their] status is not acceptable,” Kim Lek said. An additional three had already been found to be refugees.

“We asked them to leave Cambodia after 15 days and it is over one week already,” he said, adding the authorities would take legal action if they remained in Cambodia past the deadline and that Cambodia had “no right” under law to transfer them to a third country.

Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said that if the refugees were forced back, “they would face severe persecution”.

“If the government forces them back to Vietnam, Cambodia’s reputation as a regional leader in protecting the rights of refugees will be left in tatters,” he said, noting there was well-documented evidence that Montagnards were subjected to torture after they were returned from Cambodia in the early 2000s.

Under Article 91 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, “[t]hose who flee abroad or defect overseas with a view to opposing the people’s administration shall be sentenced to between three and twelve years of imprisonment”.