Human Rights Watch today denounced the Cambodian government's forced expulsions of at least eighty-nine indigenous minority asylum seekers from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and called for immediate measures to protect other refugees who may be at risk. Seventy people have been expelled in the last ten days alone.

"These forced returns violate the cardinal rule of international refugee law - the principle of non-refoulement," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director for Human Rights Watch. "Governments must not send people fleeing persecution back to countries where their lives and liberty could be at risk."
Reilly said the whereabouts and current condition of the detainees were unknown.

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to launch an immediate investigation into the forced deportations, which were carried out by provincial authorities and which represented a breach in commitments made by Cambodia's Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and the Director General of the National Police. All three had declared that Vietnamese asylum seekers fleeing to Cambodia would not be deported. At a minimum, the deportations show that policies publicly announced in Phnom Penh are not being implemented in the provinces.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Vietnamese government to immediately clarify the whereabouts and conditions of the eighty-nine people who were forcibly returned from Cambodia, and said they should be given immediate access to diplomatic representatives, international organizations, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It said there are real fears for their safety because the Vietnamese Criminal Code provides for harsh punishment for non-violent political activity deemed to be "anti-government."

The indigenous Vietnamese minorities seeking protection in Cambodia, collectively known as Montagnards, are primarily from the Jarai, Pnong, and Ede (also known as Rhade) ethnic groups that have been targeted in a recent government crackdown in Vietnam. After thousands of indigenous minority people in the Central Highlands demonstrated in February against land confiscations and religious repression, the Vietnamese government sent more troops to the area, barred free access by diplomats and the international media, cut phone lines, and arrested at least twenty people.

Human Rights Watch called for action by the Cambodian government and UNHCR to provide protection to new arrivals in order to avoid further deportation of refugees. The Cambodian government, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has a binding legal obligation to respect the international principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forcible return of refugees to situations in which they would be subject to persecution and where their lives and freedom could be threatened.

"All refugees should have prompt access to UNHCR officials when they arrive in Cambodia in order to determine whether they are in need of international protection," said Reilly. "And the Vietnamese government should allow UNHCR access to the central highland region to help address the root causes of the refugee flows."

Cambodian authorities have forcibly returned at least eighty-nine Vietnamese asylum seekers in recent weeks:

--At 11 a.m. on March 26, the First Deputy Police Commissioner of Mondolkiri province, accompanied by the commander of the provincial Gendarmerie, transported nineteen ethnic Jarai men from Koh Nhek district in Mondolkiri province to the Bou Praing border crossing, where the group was sent back to Vietnam at 5 p.m. on March 27. The third deputy governor of Mondolkiri province signed a document authorizing the transfer, which was also signed by Vietnamese authorities as the "receivers." The Mondolkiri Police Commissioner subsequently issued an official report to Hok Lundy, the Director General of the Cambodian National Police, dated March 29, on the "transfer and delivery of nineteen Vietnamese illegal immigrants" into the hands of the provincial governor, military commander, and police chief of neighboring Dac Lac province in Vietnam.

--On May 8, Y Lim (also known as Dien Y Lien), his wife Maria Nam Linh and their five children--ethnic Pnong asylum seekers who had received official UNHCR protection documents on April 25--were loaded onto a truck in Mondolkiri by Cambodian police and sent back to Vietnam. On April 26, May 1 and again on May 2, UNHCR met with Mondolkiri provincial authorities to secure assurances that persons seeking asylum would not be deported. The day before the family of seven was deported, Hok Lundy met with U.S. Ambassador Kent Wiedemann and assured him that no deportations would take place.

--On May 15, Cambodian district police in Ratanakiri province accompanied two vehicles carrying fourteen Montagnards from Vietnam--including five women and three children--to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where they were treated as illegal immigrants lacking documents and returned to Vietnam. Several of the Montagnards wept as they were handcuffed by Vietnamese police and taken away.

--At approximately 11:30 p.m. on May 15, the Ratanakiri provincial police commissioner accompanied three vehicles carrying forty-nine Jarai (forty-eight men and one woman) to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where they were subsequently sent back to Vietnam.

The most recent deportations, on May 15 and 16, were put in motion the same day that UNHCR Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi was meeting with top Cambodian police official Hok Lundy. At a meeting on May 15, Hok Lundy assured Assadi that Vietnamese asylum seekers would be protected. That very day, Cambodian police officials in Ratanakiri transported sixty-three ethnic Jarai in two groups to the Vietnam border, where they were subsequently deported.

Ratanakiri provincial officials, upon being contacted by U.N. personnel and human rights workers, indicated they were aware of the deportations but stated that the responsibility lay with the immigration police. The Ratanakiri provincial police commissioner told rights workers that in facilitating the deportations, he was carrying out an order received several years ago from the Director General of the National Police and the Ministry of Interior instructing police to deport any individuals who enter the country illegally.

Other Vietnamese asylum-seekers may still be at risk. On May 11, after the deportation of the family of seven Pnong described above, UNHCR staff escorted approximately 150 ethnic minority asylum seekers (thirty families) from several hiding places in the forest in Mondolkiri to an encampment in the provincial capital of Sen Monorum. Upon arrival, provincial officials stated that UNHCR would only have access to the asylum seekers for forty-eight hours, at which time Cambodian immigration laws would take effect, putting the asylum seekers at risk of deportation.

Following the transfer of the asylum seekers to Sen Monorum there was considerable Cambodian police presence around the refugee encampment, with provincial authorities making several attempts to arrest some of the asylum seekers, despite the fact that all had been issued letters documenting the fact that they were "persons of concern" to UNHCR. After extensive negotiations between UNHCR and provincial authorities, the police presence around the camp decreased and the forty-eight hour deadline passed without further incident.