Cambodia on track to become refugee model for Southeast Asia

News Stories, 20 October 2008

© UNHCR Cambodia
UNHCR staff and interpreters interview an asylum seeker (right) in Phnom Penh. Under new procedures soon to be adopted, the Cambodian government will take over these duties for many applicants.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, October 20 (UNHCR) Many foreigners seeking to be officially designated refugees in Cambodia are having their cases heard these days in a brand new Cambodian Refugee Office at the immigration department, rather than at the UN refugee agency's office as over the past 14 years.

The decision on whether or not to grant refugee status still rests with UNHCR officers, in consultation with Cambodian officials, but the change of location is an important move symbolic of this country's determination to take on new responsibilities in protecting refugees' human rights.

Cambodia is one of only two Southeast Asian nations to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and expects within the next two weeks to formalize the legal framework for establishing its own refugee status determination (RSD) procedures although the timetable for legal adoption of the measure is not yet clear.

"The transformation has started," said Thamrongsak Meechubot, UNHCR's representative in Cambodia. "Things are moving since the government agreed in June that it was prepared to take responsibility for refugee status determination itself."

"It is a big challenge for us," agreed Police Major General Thong Lim, director of the Cambodian Immigration Department. "We really need UNHCR's full support."

As in many countries that have not signed the 1951 Convention, or have signed it but not enacted legislation to bring it to life, UNHCR conducts RSD interviews in Cambodia jointly with government officials.

Maj. Gen. Thong said the government is finalizing a draft that will be sent to legal experts and the Cambodian cabinet for discussion before being presented to Prime Minister Hun Sen for approval as a sub-decree with legal force.

The new refugee office already has a structure in place under the immigration department, with 40 officers to be deployed at border points around the country as well as in the capital, Phnom Penh. Of crucial importance, Maj. Gen. Thong stressed, will be training in refugee law so that Cambodia can live up to international standards.

Even after Cambodia takes over responsibility for RSD, the UN refugee agency will continue to give technical advice to officials and ensure that international norms are upheld.

Maj. Gen. Thong said Cambodia was embarking on a whole new set of issues how to tell people with fake claims from genuine refugees, and how to weed out terrorists and those fleeing justice from people genuinely in need of international protection.

Still, he thinks it is an important step in Cambodia's maturity following the conflict and upheaval it experienced from 1970 until 1993, and a way of honouring the refuge that so many Cambodians received in other countries during this period.

The government has given signals that the sub-decree could be signed before the end of the year, and Thamrongsak said, "We don't expect legal complications. We expect a system that has flexibility. We don't want to burden the Cambodian bureaucracy. We want to reinforce the Cambodian bureaucracy to meet international legal standards."

Cambodia, which signed the 1951 Convention along with a raft of other international treaties when it was under UN transitional authority in the early 1990s, can be a trailblazer for much of Asia in this field.

Says Thamrongsak: "UNHCR hopes Cambodia can be a model for the region," along with the Philippines, which acceded to the Convention in 1980 and has both a legal framework and administrative regulations to implement it.

By Kitty McKinsey in Phnom Penh, Cambodia