Vietnams ongoing crackdown on Montagnards in the Central Highlands has generated a steady flow of refugees into Cambodia since 2001. While Cambodian authorities have taken some action to assist refugees when pressured, Cambodian political considerations regularly prevail over refugee rights.
In March 2002 Cambodia closed both of its provincial refugee camps and began to refuse to accept new Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam. At that time, the United States agreed to accept for resettlement the 900 Montagnards then housed in refugee camps in Cambodia.
A fresh wave of asylum seekers crossed the border to Ratanakiri province in the months following the April 2004 demonstrations. For months the Cambodian government refused to grant UNHCR officers access to the asylum seekers. Hundreds of Montagnards, including children, hid in makeshift shelters in the forest, suffering from lack of food, malaria, and dysentery.
International media coverage finally forced the Cambodian government to address the humanitarian issues posed by the flow of refugees, as well as its obligations under the Refugee Convention. In July 2004, the government authorized UNHCR to travel to northeastern Cambodia to retrieve the asylum seekers and transport them to shelters in Phnom Penh while UNHCR assessed their asylum claims.
Since that time, UNHCR has taken into protection more than 700 new Montagnard asylum seekers. So far UNHCR has recognized 296 Montagnards as refugees while rejecting the asylum claims of 126 others. The rest of the cases are still pending a decision. To date all 770 Montagnards remain housed in UNHCR shelters in Phnom Penh. In an unusual move, a number of the asylum seekers, including some who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, have refused the option of third-country resettlement. They state that they want to stay in Cambodia until the international community actively intervenes in the highlands, so that they can safely return home.
Both UNHCR and the Cambodian government now face the question of what will happen to Montagnard asylum seekers who refuse to return to Vietnam or resettle in a third country. Both must respect the international legal requirement of non-refoulementnot forcibly returning a person to a place where his or her life or liberty would be in danger. Given the Vietnamese governments track record of persecuting returnees from Cambodia, even Montagnards whose asylum cases have been rejected by UNHCR should not be forcibly returned at this time.
However, on December 27, UNHCR agreed to a request by the Cambodian government to shut down its temporary refugee camp in the Cambodian border province of Ratanakiri. UNHCR hurriedly transported all UNHCR staff in the province and 130 newly-arrived Montagnard asylum seekers from Ratanakiri to refugee shelters in the capital, Phnom Penh, where they joined the 640 other Montagnard asylum seekers. Cambodian government officials subsequently announced that they are tightening up border security to prevent new asylum seekers entering the country. In addition, the government has indicated that it will forcibly return to Vietnam any asylum seeker whose claim has been rejected by UNHCR or who refuses to be resettled in a third country.