bokeo district, Ratanakkiri – It was a mission of a different kind for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Thursday morning.
Unlike other operations over the past two months to find Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri province, the two ethnic Jarai teenagers traveling with the UNHCR were not being escorted in the direction of the provincial capital Banlung, but to the province’s Bokeo district.
The UNHCR was bringing the two teenagers back home.
Rocham Hen, 16, and Ksor Sem, 18, were placed under UNHCR protection with three other Montagnard asylum-seekers after emerging from the jungle in Bokeo district Sunday. On Wednesday, the two were discovered to be Cambodian Jarai minority members attempting to pass as Montagnards who fled Vietnam, Bokeo district Police Chief Moeung Khem said Thursday shortly after the two were dropped off at his station.
“They won’t face any punishment. We are just going to send them back to their families. Their parents didn’t know they ran away,” he said.
Apparently still enjoying his short-lived adventure, a high-spirited Rocham Hen giggled as he recounted finding the jungle hiding place of three asylum-seekers and had setting up camp with them four days before they were found by the UNHCR.
“I wanted to go and study. I have never been in Phnom Penh,” said Rocham Hen with a smirk, adding that he had not even been to Banlung before Sunday’s UNHCR-escorted trip.
But Rocham Hen was happy to be on his way back home. Four nights at the UNHCR temporary shelter for asylum-seekers in Banlung wasn’t much fun and he missed his family, he said.
Rather more subdued about the whole affair, Ksor Sem agreed: “It was better fun at home.”
Chung Ravuth, UNHCR protection and field assistant, said police informed the refugee agency on Wednesday and the teenagers admitted their deceit after he interviewed both. Authorities planned to hand them back to their families and it was doubtful they would be in any trouble, Chung Ravuth said.
Later Thursday, UNHCR was back to its primary mission in O’Yadaw district where 11 more Montagnard asylum-seekers, including four children and a 3-month-old infant, emerged from the jungle and were placed under UN protection.
“I felt very sorry for the lady who had the small baby. She said she had lost her husband in the forest,” said Chung Ravuth, adding that it was possible the woman’s husband was already with the UNHCR in Phnom Penh.
Journalists covering Thursday’s UNHCR operation were stopped at a police checkpoint in Bokeo district and told their vehicle could not proceed any further. As during a similar situation earlier this month, the officers did not prevent the reporters from proceeding on foot and later renting motorcycle taxis to follow the UNHCR operation.
A total of 27 Montagnards are now currently under UN protection in Banlung and all may be transferred to Phnom Penh on Saturday, Chung Ravuth added.
The two teenagers who slipped in with the asylum-seekers were spotted by local officials, said Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Yoeung Baloung, adding that authorities would be paying even closer attention to spot familiar faces.
“We are being very careful over this matter…the village chief must inspect them clearly before getting in the [UN] car,” he said.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said the possibility of resettlement in the US was too big a temptation to resist, but local authorities have been instructed to be vigilant.
“They want go to live in US. In Phnom Penh there are so many people applying to get to the US. [In Ratanakkiri] villagers can go by airplane and are given some money. So why wouldn’t they want to go?” Kham Khoeun said.
Commenting on the possibility that UNHCR may soon finish its operation in the province, Kham Khoeun said that asylum-seekers would likely still flee because of the “network” of sympathizers in the province.
“If there is no network…[Montagnards] will not come again. We are now working on which villages and NGOs persuaded [Montagnards] to come. We have their names already,” he said.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, said on Thursday night that new information has been received that a group of some 28 asylum-seekers who were earlier in a contested border zone between Cambodia and Vietnam have now relocated to what is clearly Cambodian territory in Ratanakkiri’s Andong Meas district.
“Many of them are sick. I will tell the UN about this,” he said.