40 Montagnard Asylum-Seekers Slip into City

Forty Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam have reached the UN’s refugee office in Phnom Penh in the past month without the government’s knowledge, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees “accepted the people who came directly to the office,” Khieu Sopheak said. “UNHCR cooperation with the government is not good.”

An official familiar with the Montagnards’ arrival also said that “about 40” asylum seekers have arrived at the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh office in the past month, 10 of whom showed up on Monday. They came directly to Phnom Penh, the official said, marking a change from previous efforts by Montagnard asylum seekers to reach UN protection in Banlung, the capital of Ratanakkiri province.

Numerous calls to UNHCR country representative Nikola Mihajlovic placed Wednesday went unanswered. Reporters were denied entry to the UNHCR office, but two motorcycle taxi drivers outside the office said they have seen Montagnards coming to the UNHCR regularly in the past month.

“The UNHCR office is very strict,” said one of the drivers. “They do not allow staff to talk to outsiders.”

More than 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia from Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 2001 after their demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom were brutally put down by Hanoi.

Sources said the Montagnards trickled into the office in small groups during the past month. Neither the official familiar with their arrival nor Khieu Sopheak would say how the Montagnards, whom the government defines as illegal immigrants and deports regularly, made the arduous journey from Vietnam’s Central Highlands to Phnom Penh.

The 40 asylum seekers have not been granted official refugee status, the official said.

The UNHCR has sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform it of the Montagnards’ arrival, the official said. Long Visalo, undersecretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, who has handled Montagnard issues, hung up the phone when contacted Wednesday.

Human rights groups contacted Wednesday said they had no information about the recent wave of Montagnard arrivals. Speaking through her assistant, Margo Picken, director of the UN’s human rights office, deferred all questions about the Montagnards to UNHCR officials.

In December, the police chief of Ratanakkiri province accused human rights and UN workers of helping Montagnards reach UN protection in Banlung.

Dozens of Vietnamese Montag­nards have crossed the border into Cambodia in the past eight months and hid in jungle areas to avoid police detection. Some have made it into UN protection, some have been deported and some have either returned to Vietnam voluntarily or disappeared.


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