(New York) Human Rights Watch today expressed strong concern about Cambodia's announcement that it will close down two refugee camps and cease protecting and providing temporary asylum for indigenous Montagnard refugees from Vietnam.
While Human Rights Watch welcomed Cambodia's decision to authorize the processing of Montagnards for resettlement to the United States, the organization said that Cambodia's decision to close its borders and summarily deport future asylum seekers was contrary to its obligations under international refugee law.
On March 31, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that within a month the two refugee camps for Montagnard refugees in Cambodia operated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be closed and all newcomers prevented from entering the country.
"Like any government, Cambodia has an obligation under international law to keep its borders open to those fleeing persecution and to provide at least temporary protection and asylum," said Rachael Reilly, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. "Failure to do so could result in the return of refugees to a country where their lives and freedom are at risk -- a violation of the most fundamental principle of refugee protection, non-refoulement."
Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to immediately address the cause of the refugee flow and cease its repression of the indigenous Montagnards. Reilly further called on Vietnam to allow UNHCR to station monitors in the Central Highlands to check on refugees who have already returned to Vietnam, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and to monitor future refugee flows.
"While Cambodia deserves credit for trying to find a solution for the Montagnards who are currently in the refugee camps in Cambodia, we have serious concerns about the future protection of Montagnard asylum seekers fleeing Vietnam," said Reilly. "And unless Vietnam addresses the cause of the refugee flows by ceasing human rights violations against the Montagnards, there will be no lasting solution to the refugee crisis."
In February 2001 the Vietnamese government launched a harsh crackdown on Montagnards in the Central Highlands after thousands joined largely peaceful protests for land rights, religious freedom, and independence. Recent reports received by Human Rights Watch indicate that ongoing human rights violations include repression of Evangelical Protestants, travel bans, forced oath-swearing ceremonies, police torture of suspected dissidents, and mistreatment of those who have attempted to flee to Cambodia.
During the past year more than 1,500 Montagnards fled to Cambodia, where many were sheltered in two camps operated by UNHCR in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri provinces. Cambodia's decision to authorize processing of the Montagnard refugees for resettlement abroad followed the dissolution of a voluntary repatriation program agreed upon in January 2002 in a tripartite agreement by Cambodia, Vietnam and UNHCR.
On March 22, UNHCR announced that it was formally terminating its involvement with the repatriation process after Cambodian officials permitted Vietnam to send delegations of several hundred people to visit the camps to pressure the refugees to return to Vietnam. In one incident on March 21, refugees and UNHCR staff were threatened and roughed up when a delegation of more than 400 people, which included as many as one hundred Vietnamese government agents, overran the camp and conducted house-to-house searches of the refugees' huts.
On March 31, Cambodian authorities announced that they have increased the police and military presence along its border with Vietnam and that any Montagnards caught crossing the border will be considered illegal immigrants and immediately deported.