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UN Refugee Cambodia Office Downsizes

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By Heng Reaksmey, VOA Khmer

PHNOM PENH - The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reduced staffing in its Phnom Penh office in favor of support for the Cambodian office tasked with aiding refugees, a UN spokeswoman says.

"We have downsized because of the overall financial situation, but we still have about two staff members in this office," the UNHCR spokeswoman, Vivian Tan, told VOA Khmer. "We’re downsizing, not closing." The office is also "re-organizing how we support the Cambodian authorities in order to better complement government arrangements through the Cambodian Refugee Office," she said.

The refugee office has seen its operations vastly reduced after the influx of Montagnard refugees tapered off in recent years, following a change in the way the US grants asylum. The UN office also faced criticism in 2009, when Cambodian authorities forcibly deported 20 Uyghur asylum seekers back to China.

Tan said that regional staff will visit often “and will continue to provide advice, guidance and training” to the Cambodian office.

"Cambodia’s Refugee Office has been handling all new asylum applications since late 2009, and will continue to do so,” Tan said in an e-mail. “It is normal for countries that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention to do refugee status determination on their own; usually UNHCR only does this in countries that do not have their own system, or as an interim measure until countries set up their own system."

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the UN office has work that remains. This is especially true for Khmer minorities living in Vietnam, also known as Khmer Kampuchea Krom, many of whom claim they are persecuted in Vietnam, and many of whom have difficulty with authorities if they flee to Cambodia.

"This office should be expanded to make sure that the government of Cambodia gives full citizenship to Khmer Kampuchea Krom when they are in Cambodia, because this is in accordance with our constitution," he said.