By Joshua Simonidis
In September 2014 the Cambodian government signed an agreement with Canberra to resettle a potentially unlimited number of refugees originally destined for Australia in exchange for increased aid. Human rights groups criticized the agreement and Cambodia’s capacity to handle refugees, but Prime Minister Hun Sen shot back, noting that 85 refugees were resettled in Cambodia in 2009. Yet Phnom Penh’s treatment of Montagnard asylum seekers from neighboring Vietnam shows a disregard for its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, in sharp contrast with the image Cambodia is trying to portray.
The Montagnards, or “mountain people” in French, are a collection of ethnic groups found primarily in northeastern Cambodia and Vietnam’s central highlands. They fought with French and then U.S. troops against Vietnamese communist forces during the Indochina Wars. As a result, the Montagnards, who are mainly Christian and animist, are often distrusted by the government and face discrimination by the majority ethnic Vietnamese. Since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, thousands of Montagnards have fled Vietnam as a consequence of poor treatment, religious persecution, and government policies that promote the development of their homeland for agriculture by encouraging mass immigration of ethnic Vietnamese.
Montagnards often make their way to Cambodia where, in the past, UN officials worked with the Cambodian government to evaluate their refugee status, after which many were successfully relocated to third countries. But in 2009, the Cambodian government issued a controversial decree giving authorities, specifically the Interior Ministry, power to independently decide who qualifies as a refugee without a rigorous evaluation. Human Rights Watch found the decree “fails to incorporate the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of what constitutes a refugee and lacks provisions to fulfill Cambodia’s other obligations as a party to the convention.”
The Cambodian government has recently used this decree to classify dozens of Montagnard asylum seekers who began to arrive in the country in November 2014 as economic migrants rather than political refugees. The government declared their entry illegal and said they were subject to arrest and deportation to Vietnam, which had requested their return.
An initial group of 13 Montagnards were able to make contact with UN officials only after an extended political battle between the Interior Ministry and UN personnel. But they are the exception. Cambodian authorities regularly deport Montagnards who encounter local police before the United Nations can reach them, as it recently did with a group of 36 Montagnards on their way to Phnom Penh. At least four are now missing after their return to Vietnam.
The Cambodian government’s most recent actions in preventing Montagnards from gaining refugee status have taken place in tandem with the Cambodia-Australia refugee resettlement agreement. The deal, which will see refugees currently housed in Australian detention facilities on Nauru in the south Pacific resettled in Cambodia in exchange for approximately $35 million, demonstrates an inherent hypocrisy in Phnom Penh’s behavior. As Cambodian authorities prepare to resettle the first five refugees in late April or early May, the message is clear: Cambodia will take refugees if properly compensated, but not out of respect for its international obligations. In essence, the government has made asylum seekers a commodity.
The international community and donor nations in particular need to push the Cambodian government to live up to its responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention. Cambodia must understand that those legal responsibilities are not dependent upon political considerations regarding relations with its neighbors, nor are they conditional on monetary incentives.