Tuesday, 25 January 2011 19:20 Cheang Sokha and Sebastian Strangio
Prime Minister Hun Sen has defended the government’s decision to shutter a United Nations-administered refugee centre next month, denying that Vietnamese Montagnards housed at the site will face persecution if they are returned to their home country.
In a January 14 letter addressed to six US congressmen, a copy of which was obtained Tuesday, Hun Sen said Cambodia had already extended its “full cooperation” in the resettlement of Montagnards, under a 2005 agreement with Vietnam and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The Montagnards failing to gain refugee status and repatriated to Vietnam have been reintegrated into society without any oppression or persecution. They have also been given support under the development projects implemented by the Vietnamese local authorities,” he wrote.
“Furthermore, since Vietnam is now at peace and has neither internal conflict not persecution against Montagnards, there is no reason for more Montagnards to seek asylum in Cambodia.”
Hun Sen wrote that the 2005 MoU had originally been designed to process the 750 Montagnards then seeking asylum in the country, but that “many more cases” had since been dealt with.
Last month, the government announced that the centre, in Sen Sok district, would be closed by January 1, warning that newly-arrived Montagnards at the site would be deported to Vietnam. The deadline was eventually extended to February 15 following a request from UNHCR.
Six US congressmen wrote to Hun Sen on December 22, expressing concern over the planned closure of the site.
Since 2001, about 2,000 Montagnards – as Vietnam’s highland ethnic minorities are known – have fled to Cambodia due to official crackdowns inside Vietnam. Last month, Human Rights Watch stated that Montagnards continue to face persecution at the hands of Vietnamese authorities.
“Montagnards continue to face arrest and imprisonment in Vietnam, primarily for belonging to independent Christian house churches that the government alleges are using religion to forward a political agenda,” HRW stated. The group estimated that approximately 300 Montagnard Christians were now serving prison sentences for their religious or political beliefs.
The centre contained 76 Montagnards when the closure was announced, 62 of which were registered refugees qualified for resettlement in third countries. The status of the remaining 14 is not clear.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, declined to comment Tuesday, though he has said previously that any Montagnards who have not been granted refugee status by the February 15 deadline will be repatriated.
Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services, said UNHCR officials are now working closely with one foreign government to speed up the resettlement of recognised refugees ahead of the deadline.
She said she was “happy” to see the centre closed, describing it as a “detention centre”, but called for all future Montagnard asylum seekers to have their claims heard fairly.
“What is really important is that the process of those seeking asylum is upheld, and that the Cambodian government will treat any future Montagnard asylum seekers the same way as any other asylum seekers,” she said.
Cambodia is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention.