Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2017, 16:02 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Cambodia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Cambodia , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 18 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 2002, some 16,000 Cambodian refugees remained in Vietnam. Most are ethnic Vietnamese who fled Cambodia between 1990 and 1995. They live in relatively stable conditions, with work opportunities and access to public health and education services.

Cambodia hosted at least 280 refugees and asylum seekers at year's end. Of those, 144 were ethnic minorities from Vietnam (known as Montagnards) who fled to Cambodia in 2001 and 2002 and were pending U.S. resettlement. Another 54 were persons of other nationalities granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while 81 asylum seekers were pending a determination by UNHCR.

An unknown number of Montagnards were in hiding in Cambodia in fear of forcible return to Vietnam.

Cambodia is a party to the UN Refugee Convention, but has no domestic law on refugees and asylum seekers. UNHCR conducts refugee status determinations for asylum applicants and provides them with legal and financial assistance. Cambodia permits UNHCR-recognized refugees to remain in the country indefinitely (although their status is officially considered temporary). According to UNHCR, resettlement to other countries is generally a "very limited" option for refugees in Cambodia, and is primarily reserved for cases of family reunion or medical cases. The resettlement of the Montagnards was an exception based on longstanding U.S. interest in this population.

In March, Cambodia signed an agreement with the United States to accept the return of Cambodians deported by the United States for having committed crimes. Most had been admitted to the United States as refugees, many as young children.

Montagnard Asylum Seekers

In 2001, more than 1,000 ethnic minorities from Vietnam's central highlands, known collectively as Montagnards, streamed into to Cambodia's Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri provinces in the remote northeast. They had fled a Vietnamese government crackdown on ethnic unrest.

Vietnam demanded the return of the Montagnards on the grounds that they had left the country illegally. Cambodia initially arrested some of the Montagnards and forcibly returned others to Vietnam.

Relenting to international pressure, Cambodia allowed UNHCR to interview the Montagnards in detention, and permitted the United States to resettle them as refugees. Eventually, Cambodia agreed to provide temporary asylum to the larger group of Montagnards until conditions improved sufficiently in Vietnam.

The asylum seekers were housed at two UNHCR-administered sites in Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri. UNHCR pressed the Vietnamese government for access to the highlands to assess prospects for repatriation. Near the end of 2001, Vietnam agreed, although by then it had signed an agreement with Cambodia to prevent "illegal border crossings." The year closed with nearly 1,000 Montagnards remaining in the UNHCR-run camps. UNHCR had confirmed Cambodia's forcible return to Vietnam of about 250 Montagnards during 2001.

In January 2002, UNHCR signed an agreement with Vietnam and Cambodia allowing the Montagnards' repatriation. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the agreement, noting that it failed to specify that returns must be voluntary and that the Montagnards must remain able to seek asylum in Cambodia. In addition, UNHCR's promised access to the Vietnamese highland was very limited.

In late February, UNHCR said the agreement was "under threat" because of several events. First, Vietnam refused a UNHCR monitoring team permission to visit villages of potential returnees. UNHCR withdrew the team after it had checked on the first group of Montagnards it had already escorted home from Cambodia.

Second, a Vietnamese government delegation, accompanied by Cambodian officials, visited the Mondolkiri camp and addressed the Montagnards there. UNHCR did not grant permission and noted that, in general, it opposes visits to refugee camps by officials from the countries they have fled. The situation was made worse when, during the visit, a Cambodian policeman struck several Montagnards with an electric baton during a disagreement with the Vietnamese officials, prompting intervention by UNHCR staff.

Finally, the two governments announced during the visit to Mondolkiri that all Montagnards should return by April 30. The imposition of a deadline, said UNHCR, "would totally undermine the idea of voluntariness."

Less than a month later, the agreement collapsed. UNHCR said it could no longer be associated with the repatriation because both governments had violated the agreement. The previous day, March 21, more than 400 Vietnamese – both civilians and government officials – arrived in buses at the Mondolkiri camp and threatened and physically abused refugees and UNHCR staff. UNHCR denounced the "unprecedented" level of coercion to return as "unacceptable."

UNHCR staff in the camps said Cambodian officials, who were normally present at the site, were absent or did not respond to the situation. After a standoff lasting several hours, the Vietnamese left with six refugees who – willingly or otherwise – agreed to return.

The incident followed reports of forced repatriation earlier in the month. On March 2, Cambodian police in Ratanakiri Province intercepted 63 Montagnards in the border area. Although UNHCR staff were present at the police station where the group was detained, the police did not allow UNHCR to meet with the asylum seekers. Police said they had instructions to deport the group, but had no instructions concerning access to UNHCR. The 63 were returned to Vietnam the same day.

Two weeks later, on March 16, Cambodian officials reportedly forced back a group of 35 Montagnards apparently trying to flee Vietnam.

Before the tripartite agreement collapsed, UNHCR had helped 15 Montagnards repatriate, although the refugee agency was unable to conduct follow-up visits to the returnees. Another 179 Montagnards returned "spontaneously" without UNHCR assistance, in a repatriation facilitated by the Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities.

In late March, the United States said it would interview for resettlement the more than 900 Montagnards remaining in the camps, if Cambodia gave permission. Cambodia said the resettlement could trigger an influx of asylum seekers, and Vietnam continued to demand the Montagnards' return. U.S. officials said Vietnam had no say in the resettlement plans.

A few days later, Cambodia agreed to the U.S. offer, but it increased its border guards to prevent further Montagnard arrivals.

By mid-April, UNHCR had transferred the Montagnards to a disused factory in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and had closed both camps. Following the closure of the Mondolkiri site, local residents looted UNHCR property and burned the camp structures in the presence of Cambodian and Vietnamese officials.

The Montagnards began arriving in the United States in June. By year's end, the United States had admitted as refugees 791 of the 915 Montagnards transferred to Phnom Penh, with the remaining 124 likely to be admitted in 2003 along with an additional 20 Montagnards who sought UNHCR protection after the camps' closure.

In late September, Human Rights Watch warned that as many as 100 Montagnards were hiding in the forests in the Vietnam-Cambodia border region, where they were in imminent danger of arrest or forcible return.

At year's end, Vietnam had reportedly initiated a new crackdown on the Montagnards, which was likely causing continued refugee flight. The Vietnamese government imprisoned a number of Montagnards for illegal departure or for helping others to leave, accusing a U.S.-based Vietnamese group of forcing people to flee.

UNHCR noted that since the closure of the camps and its departure from the two provinces, there had been "regular and credible reports of refoulement of Montagnard asylum seekers," in the range of several hundred to 1,000. The agency was not able to verify these reports because Cambodia denied UNHCR access to the border areas.

Other Forced Returns

On August 2, Cambodian police arrested a Chinese husband and wife who were members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned by the Chinese government. The couple, who had lived in Cambodia since 1998, had applied for protection from the Phnom Penh office of UNHCR. At the time of arrest, UNHCR had not completed its assessment of the couple's refugee claims, but had issued letters noting that their claims were pending. Cambodian authorities put the asylum seekers on a flight to Guangzhou, China against their will. Authorities said they had deported the couple, but denied knowing that their cases were pending with UNHCR.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) joined UNHCR and other human rights organizations in protesting the action. In a letter to the Cambodian government, USCR noted, "In the absence of a national procedure to determine refugee status, Cambodia permits UNHCR to operate in the country and to determine such claims. By failing to respect this process ... Cambodia has violated its international obligations."

UNHCR also protested the disappearance of a Buddhist monk whom UNHCR had recognized as a refugee. Human rights groups feared that the monk, who had previously been imprisoned in Vietnam, had been abducted and forcibly returned. Although UNHCR asked the Cambodian government for more information and a full investigation, the government did not respond.

In noting the disappearance, Amnesty International said that the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Cambodia had become increasingly precarious. UNHCR said that because these cases marked the first known deportation of urban refugees or asylum seekers since 1997, it was difficult to determine whether the incidents stood alone or marked a policy change for the Cambodian government.

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