It is no great secret that the overall protections available for refugees in Southeast Asia are relatively paltry.
However, there are a few countries that, at least on paper, are in opposition to this trend. Having signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992, Cambodia ostensibly appears to be somewhat of an anomaly in the region.
In 2008, this commitment towards refugees was strengthened even further with the opening of a Cambodian Refugee Office. In 2009, the Cambodian government took over the refugee determination process from the UNHCR altogether.
Such declarations and action by Cambodia are symbolic of the country’s determination to take a leading role in the region in protecting refugees’ rights.
As a refugee producing country for more than 20 years, it is commendable that Cambodia has gone to great lengths to show the world that they are now ready and willing to do their bit to help others.
Unfortunately, despite these positive commitments, Cambodia has a dubious reputation regionally and globally when it comes to actual laws and safeguards available to refugees inside the country.
Like any refugee receiving country, refugees in Cambodia come from a number of different countries. One of the most prominent groups, however, is the Montagnards from Vietnam. Coming from the central highlands region, Montagnards have been making their way to Cambodia since early 2001.
This is in direct response to the persecution they suffer at the hands of the Vietnamese central authority. As has been widely documented by rights groups for many years, the Montagnards routinely suffer from state-sanctioned religious persecution in the form of intimidation, arbitrary arrests and violent mistreatment.
Upon arrival in Cambodia, most Montagnards have high hopes of starting a new life that is free from anguish, intimidation or persecution of any form. On the contrary however, many actually find themselves in challenging situations that are little better than their lives back in Vietnam.
In addition, the most fundamental principle of refugee protection – non-refoulement – is routinely ignored by Cambodian officials. These blatant actions (or inactions) by the Cambodian government to provide protection and support to the Montagnards are evident to this day.
In the most recent case of deliberate/negligent inaction, just this month the Cambodian government announced that they had rejected the asylum applications of 29 Montagnards with the intention of sending them back to Vietnam.
This decision to return the individuals was made despite calls by international non-governmental organisations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to not send them back to Vietnam, a country where their lives would undoubtedly be in imminent danger.
UNHCR deemed the persecution risk towards the 29 to be so serious that they even brokered a deal with the government to remove the refugees from Cambodia and have them resettled in a third country.
Despite this deal being ready to go, the Cambodian authorities reneged on the agreement at the 11th hour, most likely in response to pressure from the Vietnamese administration.
Such action by the Hun Sen government proves that Cambodia’s credibility as a country offering genuine protection for refugees is completely false. Their proclamation to send back a group of individuals that already have a durable solution on the table shows both callousness and a complete disregard for the spirit and meaning of the Refugee Convention.
Aside from the Montagnards, Cambodia is also known in the region for its standing-offer to resettle refugees that are currently detained on the island nation of Nauru. Signed on September 26, 2014, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia relating to the Settlement of Refugees provides the option for refugees currently detained on Nauru to voluntarily opt for resettlement to Cambodia.
The agreement with Australia was shrouded in secrecy prior to signing and there was no consultation with civil society groups in either country. As such, there are many parts of the agreement that seriously fall short of what is required to provide refugees that choose to go to Cambodia with true protection and safety.
Such concerns relate to freedom of movement, an ability to seek employment and the ability to own property. To date just seven refugees have chosen to leave Nauru and be resettled in Cambodia. Of these seven, four have already left, instead deciding to return to their countries of origin.
These four refugees decided to leave a refugee signatory country, a “nation of safety”, to instead return to countries they initially fled for their lives. Such decisions to return were surely not whimsical but rather made after serious contemplation and deliberation.
For the Montagnards from Vietnam and for refugees transferred from Nauru, it is obvious that Cambodia is unwilling and unable to provide them with the necessary safety, protections and long-term support that they need.
No matter what entitlements refugees supposedly have on paper, it appears that Cambodia does not have the capacity nor the desire to ensure that this translates into genuine protections and safeguards.
With a number of international agreements under their belt and with the basic structures and mechanisms in place, Cambodia is well placed to play a positive and leading role in protecting refugees in Southeast Asia.
However, it is up to the Cambodian authorities to implement their pre-existing commitments truthfully, in full and without discrimination. Only when the government reaches this point can refugees truly arrive in Cambodia knowing that they’ll have access to the rights and protection that they deserve.
Evan Jones is the Programme Coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) based in Bangkok, Thailand.