Cambodia must ensure it offers a safe haven to asylum seekers, rights groups say, following the government’s closure this week of a United Nations-run refugee centre, home to dozens of Montagnards from Vietnam.
The 75 Montagnards, part of ethnic minority tribes from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, had been housed at the facility in Phnom Penh – some for up to six years. The government had ordered the centre shut late last year, saying that the Montagnards would either need to be resettled or forcibly returned to Vietnam.
The government gave the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) until this week to find new homes for the asylum seekers.
The UNHCR said 55 of the Montagnards had been resettled in Canada or the United States by this week’s deadline. A further ten are awaiting emigration, while the remaining ten were judged not to meet refugee criteria and are to be returned to Vietnam.
But there are still concerns over the safety of future asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch says Cambodia’s recent track record on asylum seekers has been "dismal". And it says the south-east Asian country’s regulations governing refugees may not ensure their safety.
"It’s very possible that in the future we may see more Montagnard asylum seekers coming in to Cambodia," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
"And the question is, what sort of reception are they going to receive?"
Rights groups say the Montagnards, who are comprised of a number of highland tribes, face harassment and persecution in Vietnam.
The mostly Christian Montagnards are targeted because of their beliefs, HRW says, and because members of the community sided with the United States during the Vietnam War. HRW estimates there are currently 300 Christian Montagnards imprisoned in Vietnam because of religious or political beliefs.
Cambodia is unique among its immediate neighbours in that it is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which sets a definition for who can qualify as refugees and obliges States Parties to protect them. However, critics say refugees in Cambodia have not always been treated fairly.
In late 2009, Cambodia issued a sub-decree that effectively gave it the final say in determining refugee status. But HRW believes the new regulations are wide open to interpretation.
"We’re concerned that (future asylum-seekers) might not receive a fair hearing," Robertson said. "If there’s a political impetus to try to keep refugees out, to try to toe the government line from Vietnam that these people aren’t refugees, we’re worried Phnom Penh will just go along."
Critics say there is a precedent for such concern. Days after the government passed the sub-decree, it forcibly returned 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China in a move rights groups widely condemned. At the time, the group’s refugee claims were still being assessed.
Their fates remain unclear today, but China has issued lengthy prison terms or even death sentences to other Uighurs accused of participating in ethnic riots earlier that year. China and Cambodia later announced trade deals worth roughly 1.2 billion dollars.
The government, however, says the Montagnard refugee centre has served its purpose.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the UN-administered facility has processed the claims of almost 1,000 asylum seekers since it was formed as part of an agreement with the UNHCR in 2005.
"Now we need to close it down," he said. "We do not want it to stay open any longer. The longer it stays open, the more problems we will face."
Koy Kuong rejected claims Montagnard asylum seekers would be persecuted in Vietnam.
"Vietnam is a lawful country, not a country of barbarians," he said. "Millions of people live there and their economy is growing very fast. Vietnam has no civil war right now."
The group Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has worked extensively with Montagnards and other people seeking asylum in Cambodia. Denise Coghlan, JRS’s Cambodia director, said the move to close the Montagnard refugee centre was a positive step; it was an imperfect set-up that essentially saw the claimants 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," she 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," she said. "I hope it will be implemented in a humane way and according to the principle and spirit of the UN conventions."
This story was first published by IPS.