Bokeo district, Ratanakkiri province – With palms pressed together in the Christian sign of prayer, a 43-year-old Montagnard asylum seeker silently led 31 others as they walked in single file out of the jungle in Bokeo district, one of two locations in Ratanakkiri province where a total of 53 Montagnards emerged to turn themselves over the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Thursday.
“I trust in God. Now that I have reached here I would like to thank God,” said the Jarai asylum seeker, who said he spent two months hiding in the jungle.
Lining up on a red dirt road, turned muddy by torrential rains that have settled over the province in the past week, the 29 men and three women shook hands with waiting UNHCR personnel and Bokeo district and Interior Ministry officials who were led to the rendezvous point by local human rights group Adhoc.
After a short briefing by UN staff, the 32 clambered aboard an open back truck for the bumpy and treacherously slippery hours-long journey to Banlung provincial capital, where Montagnard asylum seekers are being housed at the UNHCR’s former office in the town and nearby at a large stilted house that has been rented as a temporary shelter.
In O’Yadaw district, a separate group of 21 Montagnard asylum seekers presented themselves to the UNHCR and government officials after trekking to Kong village, Pate commune, from their hideouts in the surrounding jungle.
Dozens of local ethnic Jarai villagers stood by and watched as the 21 were questioned and their names, ages and home addresses in Vietnam were registered by both UN and government officials.
Thursday’s collection was the third undertaken by a joint UNHCR and government delegation sent to Ratanakkiri late last week and that has now registered 181 Montagnard asylum seekers who fled neighboring Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The Central Highlands has been the site of a massive
security crackdown since ethnic minority demonstrations in 2001 and April 2004.
O’Yadaw district Governor Bun Than and Bokeo district Governor Khum Sakhon said they were happy to see the asylum seekers depart.
“I hope it’s finished,” said Bun Than as the 21 asylum seekers prepared to leave Kong village. “But I heard there are about 5,000 more looking to come here. I am worried they will.”
Cathy Shin, UNHCR protection and field officer, on Thursday said the 181 will be transferred to Phnom Penh imminently.
“What we do now is ask for permission from Phnom Penh to transfer them down and once we get that we will start transferring ASAP. Probably in the next few days,” Shin said.
Whether UNHCR will be allowed maintain its presence in Ratanakkiri to monitor the Montagnard asylum seeker influx is still undecided.
A source familiar with the asylum seekers issue said Thursday there are an unknown number of Montagnards still in hiding.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said Thursday that he hoped UNHCR would move the 181 over the weekend or early next week.
Asked about reports of still more asylum seekers in hiding Kham Khoeun said: ” Lets wait and see. There is no directive to take more people out. I am also concerned that someone who has a network will bring more people in [to Cambodia].”
A 40-year-old Jarai asylum seeker who was interviewed Thursday in Bokeo district after emerging from the jungle said he had been in hiding for over two years and that many more Montagnards are still hiding in the jungle in Vietnam.
“There are about 1,500 still hiding in the jungle in Vietnam,” the man said, adding that Montagnards were coming to Cambodia to seek UN assistance because of the dispossession of their ancestral lands.
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