The Cambodian government has ordered the closure of a UN site holding dozens of Montagnard refugees from Vietnam, in a move that rights groups say is politically motivated and potentially dangerous for those whose status has yet to be determined.
The facility houses 76 refugees and asylum-seekers from Vietnam who are members of that country's highland ethnic minorities. Rights groups claim the Montagnards face ethnic and religious persecution by the Vietnamese government.
A majority - 62 - at the site have qualified for resettlement but the case of 14 others has yet to be determined.
"The Royal Government of Cambodia will repatriate to Vietnam the remaining Montagnards, including the new arrivals and those awaiting interview, on a date to be notified in due course," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated.
In a letter dated 29 November, but not obtained by the press until this week, the government wrote to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), ordering it to close the site on 1 January.
On 17 December, however, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that the government would extend the deadline to 15 February as a "favour" to the UN.
"We're still trying to verify this officially, but if this is true it would be very good news as this is exactly what we were asking the Cambodian government to do," Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told IRIN from Ho Chi Minh City.
Claims of persecution
Since 2001, some 2,000 Motagnards have fled to Cambodia following government crackdowns in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Many have resettled in third countries through Cambodia but others have been arrested and deported to Vietnam, the group says.
It has not yet been clarified by either the government or UN whether the cases of the 14 without resettlement countries were rejected or undecided.
If the latter, repatriating them would be a violation of Cambodia's signed commitment to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, requiring it to protect refugees fleeing persecution.
Under the convention, "Cambodia has a clear obligation... to ensure that the 14 Montagnard asylum-seekers are permitted to enter a refugee screening determination process that is fair and based on international standards", Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division, said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, a local rights group, maintained that the Cambodian government was sending a clear message: "Cambodia will not be a place to receive" political refugees.
His group tied the government's demanded closure to a visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Phnom Penh last month in which trade deals were emphasized.
The decision to close the refugee site "is further evidence that the treatment of political refugees in Cambodia is secondary to the [government's] political and economic prerogative", the group said in a letter released on 15 December.
Rights groups say the Montagnard case follows the pattern of the Cambodian government's widely criticized move to forcibly repatriate 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers to China on 19 December 2009 - immediately after the announcement of a US$1.2 billion aid package from Beijing.
"With the Uighurs, the Cambodian government blatantly disregarded its obligation under the Convention by failing to conduct a refugee screening determination, and it's up to UNHCR and concerned governments like the US and EU and others to pressure the Cambodian government to ensure that Montagnards don't suffer a repeat performance of what the Uighurs faced," Robertson said.
News reports inside China stated that four of the Uighurs were executed and 14 jailed.
Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong has rejected claims that political pressure was the motivation for the UN site's closure.
"No one has influence on Cambodia's policy," he told the Phnom Penh Post. "We decided to close it down on our own."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions