(New York) – The Cambodian government should abide by its international obligations not to return Vietnamese and other asylum-seekers to countries where they face persecution. On February 4, 2015, a government official in Rattanakiri province announced that a family of five who were reportedly facing religious persecution in Vietnam had been sent to Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Cambodia’s donors should jointly and publicly press the Cambodian government to acknowledge the existence of Vietnamese asylum seekers and fairly assess their claims for refugee status, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should stop treating them as “illegal aliens” whom local authorities can summarily deport to Vietnam.

“The Cambodian government is once again using abusive tricks to evade its iron-clad legal responsibilities to make sure that asylum seekers enjoy their right to a fair and impartial assessment of their claims to be refugees,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government is putting these people’s lives and well-being at risk by forcing back those it arrests, and putting those who are forced into hiding at risk of starvation, disease, and exposure.”

The media reported on February 1 that a mixed force of police and army personnel in Rattanakiri province arrested a family of five, whom these accounts identified as Christian members of the upland Jarai minority. They had reportedly come to Cambodia from neighboring parts of Vietnam as asylum seekers, claiming persecution in Vietnam and hoping to be recognized as refugees in Cambodia. The media accounts said they had been hiding in the forest because they feared that without intervention by United Nations agencies, Cambodian authorities would send them back to Vietnam. On February 4, a Rattanakiri province spokesperson confirmed that they had been summarily deported because they were illegal Vietnamese migrants, which echoed national government statements to the same effect, and the government has also asserted that Jarai seeking asylum are Cambodian, not Vietnamese citizens.  

The Cambodian authorities had detained the family incommunicado, preventing the UN and human rights advocates from learning of their claims. This is part of a larger pattern by which the authorities are now refusing to allow at least 27 Christian Jarai hiding in isolated parts of Rattanakiri to make asylum claims locally, or travel safely to do so in Phnom Penh. At the same time, Cambodian authorities have threatened nongovernmental organization staff in the province who are trying to assist asylum seekers, and are not cooperating with Phnom Penh-based UN agencies, specifically the offices of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that are ready to do so. These individuals are thus prevented from giving their accounts—not only to these agencies, but also to the government’s own refugee status determination service. This has left the government free to falsely maintain there are no asylum seekers in Rattanakiri.

The government reversed its policies and practices from December 2014, when it allowed 16 Jarai Vietnamese asylum seekers to go to Phnom Penh and have access to the government’s refugee status determination process. Many people working on asylum seeker and refugee issues in Cambodia have told Human Rights Watch they believe this reversal was the result of pressure on Cambodia from Vietnam, which wants to minimize international attention to human rights violations in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread violations in Vietnam, including abuses against upland Christian minorities.

Cambodia became a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1992. It is obligated under the treaty as well as customary international law not to return refugees to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened, known as the principle of non-refoulement. A December 2009 government sub-decree undermines the Refugee Convention by not providing sufficient procedural protections to prevent refoulement and instead provides the authorities numerous and overlapping bases for refusal of refugee status. In the current case, even this flawed procedure has been flaunted, Human Rights Watch said.

“Donors should swiftly and strongly press the Cambodian government to ensure that asylum seekers in Rattanakiri, whose situation is reportedly dire, are not returned to persecution or left to die in the forest,” Adams said. “The government needs to make sure asylum seekers have their claims properly heard and judged, with the involvement and assistance of UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations.”