Minister suggests Montagnards cannot make Cambodia home

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has reportedly said Vietnamese Montagnards who seek asylum in Cambodia would be sent on to a third country to be rehomed, or sent back to Vietnam.

The alleged comments come just five months after Cambodia agreed to be the resettlement country for refugees detained by Australia on the South Pacific isle of Nauru.

The deal, which was worth $35-million in aid, was signed by Kheng and then-Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison at an elaborate champagne ceremony in Phnom Penh.

The Phnom Penh Post reported on Wednesday that when asked about the situation of Montagnards arriving in Cambodia to seek asylum, Kheng said the country is not in a position to accept them.

“If they are found to be refugees, with sufficient documents and evidence, we have to find a partner—a third country—to send them to. [But if a third country] will not accept them, we cannot just set up a [refugee] camp in the Kingdom,” the Post quoted Kheng as saying.

Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak could not be reached to verify the comments made by his superior.

Scores of Montagnards—a predominantly Christian people who live in the central highlands of Vietnam—have sneaked across the border into the jungles of Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province over the past few months for fear of persecution in their home country.

While about 23 remain in hiding, 20 are now having their applications for asylum processed by immigration officials in Phnom Penh.

In addition, the Cambodian government has been carrying out a census of foreigners in Cambodia.

The Cambodia Daily reported on Wednesday that 86 Vietnamese people have been deported since January.

Sister Denise Coghlan, who heads the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh, told The Anadolu Agency on Wednesday that under international law, there are two main options available to Montagnards who are accepted as refugees in Cambodia.

“Cambodia would allow them to resettle in Cambodia in the same way as it’s promised to resettle refugees that Australia proposes to cast off here,” she said.

“Second, is that it can help Montagnard refugees take up a durable solution in a third country by issuing travel documents.”

Thirdly, she added, “there is no other option under international law. The illegal option would be to send them back to Vietnam, which is refoulement, and which is the mortal sin of refugee law.”

Sister Denise said many of the refugees she has worked with have expressed a desire to resettle in a third country, “and they are actively pursuing that dream.”

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