Gov’t: Montagnards Not Welcome

    The government will not accept more Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam because it lacks the resources to do so and does not want to provoke Hanoi, Council of Ministers’ Phay Siphan told Khmer Times yesterday.

    Sunday, 28 June 2015; News by Khmer Times / Donald Lee

    PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The government will not accept more Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam because it lacks the resources to do so and does not want to provoke Hanoi, Council of Ministers’ Phay Siphan told Khmer Times yesterday.

    His comments contradict statements made by Interior Ministry officials to Radio Free Asia last week and Khmer Times two weeks ago suggesting that the ministry was open to granting refugee status to the more than 100 Montagnards who fled Vietnam and are now living in Phnom Penh.

    Mr. Siphan characterized them as a political faction opposed to the government there rather than a persecuted religious and ethnic minority.  

    “We don’t want to provoke relations with Vietnam by establishing a refugee camp [for Montagnards],” he said, suggesting as well that those already here would not be officially recognized as asylum seekers.

    “We don’t have the resources like other developed countries to provide for them. Second, stability is our number one goal…and by accepting these people it would provoke the Vietnamese government and hurt our relationship with the country,” Mr. Siphan said.

    Global Appeal

    Mr. Siphan’s remarks followed a statement issued in Geneva late last week calling on UN member states to protect migrants fleeing torture – as Montagnard asylum seekers have said they are.

    “Migration authorities should ensure that any measures they take do not further traumatize victims,” the statement said.

    “We must protect vulnerable people, not victimize them,” said Malcolm Evans, chairperson of a UN panel on the prevention of torture.

    Claudio Grossman, who chairs another UN committee against torture, called on member states to ensure that the Convention against Torture applied to everyone, “regardless of how or when they arrived in a country.”

    “Tortured in Vietnam”

    A report released by Human Rights Watch late last week documented allegations of torture committed against Montagnard asylum seekers. They reported being beaten, electrocuted and denied food while in detention.

    Others said their arrests began while they were farming. Police approached them, placed hoods over their heads and led them off to detention centers, the report said.

    This was not news to the UN’s refugee agency in Bangkok. Officials there told Khmer Times its investigators found the same crimes were reported by asylum seekers.

    They “must be registered [as refugees] as a matter of urgency,” said Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the agency. “They must not be deported before their claims are heard and assessed in a fair and efficient process,” she added.

    Refugee Convention

    The Cambodian government is failing to live up to its obligations to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, even though it ratified the treaty more than 20 years ago, on October 15, 1992, Human Rights Watch said.

    “The fact that there are more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers waiting in Phnom Penh for protection without options or answers shows just how badly the Cambodian government is failing,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of its Asia division.

    So far this year, 54 Montagnards have been detained in Cambodia and deported back to Vietnam.

    According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are more than 100 more Montagnard asylum seekers waiting to file their refugee claims with the government in Phnom Penh.

    More are expected to arrive.

    Taking Responsibility

    Cambodia’s refugee office, which is under the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, has only registered 13 Montagnards since the end of last year, officials said.

    Mr. Robertson said UNHCR – which works with governments to register asylum seekers – should not wait for Cambodian officials to do their job. He urged the agency to unilaterally register the asylum seekers in Phnom Penh before they are deported back to Vietnam.

    “UNHCR is going to have to step in and act based on its mandate to protect refugees,” he told Khmer Times.

    This may, however, be outside the mandate – or overstepping the protocol – of the UN agency. “We provide technical support but obviously do not wish to undermine the development of national systems, particularly in this region,” Ms. Tan said.

    “We continue to urge the Cambodian authorities to register these asylum-seekers as both domestic and international law requires,” she added.

    Washington’s Responsibility?

    Mr. Siphan said international agencies should focus on the factors in Vietnam that are causing Montagnards to flee, rather than asking the government here to address what he considers to be a domestic issue for Vietnam. 

    He also said that Washington should take responsibility for its role in creating the roots of the current problem.

    Over 40,000 Montagnards fought alongside American soldiers against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in the Vietnam War.

    Only about 2,000 were resettled in America. 

    “The US Embassy should not only press the Vietnamese government to stop the fleeing of these people but also negotiate a plan to relocate the Montagnard asylum seekers to the US,” Mr. Siphan said. (Additional reporting Vincent MacIsaac)