Cambodian and international reactions to the arrival of Montagnard asylum seekers

The Cambodian government

Asylum seekers or illegal immigrants?

Dozens of Montagnard asylum seekers have reportedly been deported back to Vietnam before they reached Phnom Penh, either directly from Ratanakiri province, or after being intercepted on the road from Ratanakiri to the Cambodian capital. The majority of others who did reach Phnom Penh - estimated at well over 100 people - were not been permitted to register their claims with the government in 2015, and faced the risk of arrest and deportation. The government has given some indication that it may process the claims of 170 Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh in 2016, but the outcome of these cases remains to be seen.

Cambodian authorities have defended the deportation of Montagnard asylum seekers on the basis that the people sent back to Vietnam were not asylum seekers or refugees. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, General Khieu Sopheak, described Montagnards as ‘illegal immigrants’ and is reported as saying ‘we don't believe they are Montagnards yet… until we interview them, we can't determine whether or not they are Montagnards’. General Sopheak is also reported as saying that if Vietnamese authorities detain Montagnards deported from Cambodia that is ‘their business’, adding that ‘it’s not only these 36 people’ (referring to the 36 Montagnards deported in February 2015), ‘we have sent back hundreds or even thousands of illegal Vietnamese people.’  General Sok Phal, director general of the General Department of Immigration, has said 'illegal immigrants do not cross through international checkpoints, but through illegal checkpoints', and that Montagnard asylum seekers must enter Cambodia through official checkpoints.

These and other similar statements suggest that the Cambodian government may have a different understanding of what a 'refugee' is from the definition of this term under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is legally binding on Cambodia. For example, Phay Siphan, spokesperson for the Cambodian Secretary of State, has reportedly said his government will not take 'political refugees' from Vietnam or China, and that:

'Those people are not refugees, they are just getting away from the government ... We call it illegal immigration.'

The local police in Ratanakiri, who are responsible for making first contact with any asylum seekers, repeatedly refused to acknowledge that there were any Montagnard asylum seekers in the area. Instead they referred to the people in question variously as:

Ratanakiri police chief Nguon Koeun referred to one group by saying ‘they are not Montagnards, they are Vietnamese Jarai people’, despite the fact that the Jarai are one of the hill tribes that make up the Montagnard group. In February 2015, a local police source reportedly said ‘we must take action to stop those people from crossing illegally'.

Failure to process asylum claims

With regard to the Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong defended Cambodia's failure to register them by arguing that: 'If we just received them when they enter Cambodia in terms of them being Montagnard refugees, from 500,000 to 1 million Vietnamese could enter'. In June 2015 Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia would not accept more Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam because it did not want to 'provoke relations with Vietnam by establishing a refugee camp' and did not have the resources to provide for them. This statement contradicted that made one week earlier by Major General Uk Heisela, chief investigator at the Ministry of Interior's Immigration Department, who said if the 'United Nations calls these people Montagnards and recognizes them as Montagnards, as part of an ethnic group, then we will recognize them as Montagnards as well'.

In January 2016 the Cambodian government announced that it would allow the 170 Montagnard asylum seekers known to be in the country at that time to register their asylum claims, and be processed. By February General Khieu Sopheak, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, announced that most of the group had 'failed the evaluation' and would be returned to Vietnam, despite refugee advocates and UNHCR reporting that registration of the group had not even commenced.

Treatment or people recognised as refugees

Even if Montagnard asylum seekers are recognised as refugees in Cambodia, the Interior Ministry has indicated that they will not be permitted to remain in the country. Minister of Interior Sar Kheng is reported as saying:

‘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’.

Interior Ministry spokesperson General Khieu Sopheak has said that the UN can ‘bring [the Montagnards] to Phnom Penh, but whether or not they are considered as refugees will be decided by the host country.’ In February 2015, he also stated that Cambodia cannot accept refugees because to do so would be ‘unconstitutional’:

'The constitution states that Cambodia is a neutral country, not allied with any league. Therefore, taking refugees from any country… is against the Cambodian constitutional law.'

General Sopheak reportedly asked ‘is the international law more important than the Cambodian laws and Cambodians?’, and said the government would reject refugees to preserve ‘happiness and harmony’ in the country.

The government has announced that the 13 Montagnards who were permitted to register their claims for asylum, and have been found to be refugees, will be relocated temporarily to Philippines to await resettlement elsewhere.

The United Nations

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have expressed serious concerns about the Cambodian government’s response to the arrival of Montagnard asylum seekers. For more information, see:

Other countries and organisations

On 18 February 2015, US Ambassador to Cambodia, William Todd, spoke out about Cambodia’s response to the ongoing arrivals of Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam. He noted that there was concern in Cambodia and internationally about the Montagnards’ treatment, and said:

'The UN refugee convention obliges all countries that have signed onto it, including Cambodia, to register asylum seekers and provide a fair process to determine their status.  Asylum seekers should not be turned away by any authority before this is done… I encourage Cambodian officials to ensure that the Montagnards and all future asylum seekers have full and unimpeded access to internationally accepted asylum procedures.'

A range of Cambodian and international human rights organisations have also expressed concern about the treatment of Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia, and called on the government to comply with its international obligations. For more information, see:


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