In what appears to be the largest migration of Montagnards into Cambodia in months, 116 people traveled from Vietnam to UN camps in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces last week, according to officials from both the UN and the US Embassy.
The 116 asylum-seekers arrived in four different groups over the course of the week, said Katy Grant, a field officer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. All of them came from Daklak province in central Vietnam, Grant said, and only eight have been granted “persons of concern” status so far by the UNHCR.
The first two groups, composed of 15 and 16 people, crossed over from Vietnam into Ratanakkiri province on Aug 28 and were picked up by provincial border police, Grant said. Then, in an unprecedented act of cooperation with the UNHCR, the border police contacted the UNHCR and set up a time and place for them to pick up the groups, according to Grant and Pra Chuap, a UNHCR worker in Ratanakkiri.
The next two groups made it to the UNHCR camp in Mondolkiri province later in the week, Grant said. A group of eight arrived Thursday afternoon, all of them wives and children of asylum seekers already living in the Mondolkiri camp, Grant said. As family members, they were automatically granted “persons of concern” status and were allowed into the camp, according to Grant.
A UNHCR team in Mondolkiri picked up the last group of 78 asylum seekers on Friday and Saturday, and they are currently “housed in the vicinity of the camp,” Grant said in an interview Sunday.
Apart from the group of wives and children that arrived at the Mondolkiri camp Thursday, all of the asylum seekers who arrived in Cambodia this week are being interviewed to establish whether they should be granted “persons of concern status,” Grant said.
UNHCR officials said they did not yet know why such a concentration of Montagnard asylum seekers have surfaced in Cambodia over the last few days.
“As to what has happened that’s seemed to provoke this large exodus, it’s too soon to say,” Grant said.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, said there was no official report from provincial officials of any asylum seekers entering the country over the past week.
“That’s only propoganda to attract Montagnards to come to Cambodia,” he said. “We didn’t see any Montagnards.”
First deputy police chief of Ratanakkiri Dim Yarong said he knew of only two asylum seekers entering the UNHCR camp in Ratanakkiri last week.
UNHCR officials said they were surprised that the government denied the existence of this week’s newly arrived asylum seekers, especially given the unprecedented help they said border police gave them in Ratanakkiri Tuesday.
“[The action border police took Tuesday] was a piece of cooperation we’d love to have around here,” Grant said. “I don’t know why they’re denying it.”
US ambassador Kent Wiedemann visited UNHCR camps in Mondolkiri province on Tuesday and Thursday, and left just before the two Mondolkiri groups arrived.
Wiedemann said he had heard about Tuesday’s cooperation between border police and the UNHCR, and said he found it very encouraging.
“I went [to the UNHCR camps] to ensure they had adequate cooperation [from local authorities], and I thought they did,” Wiedemann said Sunday. He said he regarded the border police cooperative action as “concrete confirmation” that local authorities are respecting the rights of asylum seekers.
Wiedemann said he was also at a loss as to why the Cambodian government denied the existence of the newly arrived asylum seekers.
Wiedemann praised those living and working in the Mondolkiri camp, saying the asylum seekers themselves are working to keep conditions as good as possible.
“The refugees themselves are a very industrious bunch—not the type to sit around and play cards, waiting for something to happen,” Weidemann said. “The women have constructed looms and are weaving their traditional clothing, and the men are doing woodwork to improve the camp.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)