At the end of 2001, some 16,000 Cambodian refugees remained in Vietnam and about 92 in Thailand. Most of those in Vietnam 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 more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers at year's end. Of those, 963 were ethnic minorities from Vietnam (known as Montagnards) who fled to Cambodia during the year. Another 50 were persons granted refugee status under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Cambodia is a signatory 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 a "very limited" option for refugees in Cambodia, and is primarily reserved for cases of family reunion or medical cases.
In October, representatives of donor countries that had earlier pledged considerable financial assistance to Cambodia criticized the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen for failing to achieve promised reforms. Some accused the government of neglecting judicial and civil-service reform, as well as anti-corruption activities, and instead focusing on the country's long overdue local elections scheduled for February 2002. Political violence increased throughout 2001 as the elections approached.
During the year, setbacks occurred in the effort to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial through a "mixed tribunal" presided over by both Cambodian and international judges and co-prosecutors.
Montagnard Asylum Seekers
In March, ethnic minorities from Vietnam's central highlands, known collectively as Montagnards, began streaming into Cambodia's Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri provinces in the remote northeast. They had fled a government crackdown on ethnic unrest in February. Vietnam demanded the immediate return of the Montagnards on the grounds that they had crossed the border illegally.
On March 23, Cambodian police arrested 24 Montagnards in Mondolkiri, transported them to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, and detained them. Although Hun Sen, a long-time ally of Vietnam, initially said he would deport the group, he later relented under international pressure and allowed UNHCR to interview the asylum seekers on March 31. The next month, in a move that angered Vietnam, the United States resettled as refugees 38 UNHCR-approved Montagnards, including the 24 who had been arrested initially.
Subsequently, more than 1,000 Montagnards fled into Cambodia. However, provincial officials forcibly returned some to Vietnam. In May, officials attempted to arrest and deport several refugees who were under UNHCR protection in Ratanakiri. That same month, UNHCR escorted some 130 Montagnards out of hiding in Mondolkiri and placed them in a tent settlement outside the provincial capital of Sen Monorom.
After negotiations with UNHCR and pressure by several foreign governments, Cambodia agreed to provide temporary asylum to Montagnards until conditions improved sufficiently in Vietnam – another decision that angered Vietnam and soured relations between the two governments. The asylum seekers were to be housed at two sites operated by UNHCR.
UNHCR pressured the Vietnamese government to allow the refugee agency access to the highlands to assess prospects for repatriation. In July, tripartite talks between Vietnam, Cambodia, and UNHCR broke down when Vietnam refused to allow UNHCR such access.
In early September, Cambodian authorities found another 117 Montagnards in Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri and turned them over to UNHCR – a welcome development after months of reports of forced returns. Near the end of the month, however, Vietnam and Cambodia signed an agreement to step up security along their border to prevent "illegal border crossings."
In December, the Vietnamese government changed its policy regarding UNHCR access to the central highlands, and a second round of tripartite talks was set for January 2002.
By the end of 2001, UNHCR had confirmed Cambodia's forcible return to Vietnam of about 250 Montagnards. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the actual figure could be higher.
At year's end, 963 Montagnard asylum seekers remained at the two UNHCR-administered sites – 565 at Mondolkiri and 398 at Ratanakiri.
A number of other Montagnards were believed to have crossed the border into Cambodia without UNHCR's knowledge.
Asylum Seekers from South Asia
In July, Cambodian authorities seized an Indonesian-owned logging vessel and arrested some 240 Afghans, Pakistanis, and at least one Iranian on board as the group left Sihanoukville, southwestern Cambodia, en route to Australia. The group had reportedly entered Cambodia on tourist visas. Authorities charged the migrants with departing Cambodia illegally and detained them pending resolution of their status.
The effort was believed to be the first recent attempt by people-smugglers to use Cambodia as a transit point to Australia. Australian Ambassador to Cambodia Louise Hand praised the Cambodian government's "prompt response" in helping to effectively "shut down a whole new route" for the smuggling operation.
UNHCR said it had "full access" to the group arrested in July, and advised the group members of their option to apply to UNHCR for refugee status. Those wishing to return were directed to the International Organization for Migration for assistance.
By year's end, 14 of the persons arrested in July (all Afghans) had applied to UNHCR for refugee status. UNHCR approved 13 and rejected 1. Most others chose to return to Pakistan.
(In January 2002, UNHCR signed an agreement with Vietnam and Cambodia on the repatriation of some 1,000 Montagnards who had fled to Cambodia from Vietnam in 2001. The tripartite agreement collapsed in March, however, when UNHCR said it could no longer be associated with the repatriation because both the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments had violated the terms of the agreement. The United States subsequently agreed to consider the nearly 1,000 Montagnards for resettlement.)