A new group of 54 Montagnard asylum-seekers fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands were taken from the forests of Ratanakkiri province last week and received by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, officials said Monday.
Unlike previous groups of rescued Montagnards, which consisted largely of individual adults fleeing in small groups, the newest group included a number of families, said Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri coordinator for the rights group Adhoc.
“Right now the Montagnards flee…with their whole families, including their small children. Before there would be only one person from each family,” he said.
Chung Ravuth, a protection officer with the UNHCR, confirmed on Monday that 54 Montagnards had been put under UN protection, but said that there was no plan as yet to transport them to Phnom Penh, where a group of about 500 asylum-seekers await resettlement.
He said the UN body would remain in Ratanakkiri for the time being and await reports of arriving Montagnards.
Hor Ang, Ratanakkiri province deputy police chief, said Monday that he also had noticed that the latest group of Montagnards included a number of families, and suggested that some of the recent asylum-seekers were not fleeing persecution, but merely their economic circumstances.
A wave of Montagnards began streaming across the Cambodian border after Vietnam’s security forces violently cracked down on April 10 and April 11 demonstrations, when thousands of ethnic minorities protested for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands.
For months, Cambodian government officials maintained that the asylum-seekers where illegal immigrants, and maintained a policy of forced deportation that kept hundreds of Montagnards hidden in the northeastern jungles.
The government softened its stance in July, and since then has largely cooperated with the UNHCR.
Deputy police Chief Hor Ang said Monday that while some refugees had told him their rights had been abused in Vietnam, others, he claimed, had primarily complained of living standards.
“Some Montagnards, they just want to live in a third country because of the economic crisis,” Hor Ang said. He said he expected many more Montagnards to flee to Cambodia and that the authorities would make no effort to stop them.
“The Montagnards do not effect the province in a bad way,” he said.
Pen Bonnar said the UNHCR had not received any new reports of Montagnards in hiding.
He suggested, however, that since there have been no recent demonstrations in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the latest groups of asylum-seekers might be crossing the border because they have heard of UNHCR’s presence in Ratanakkiri province.
Recently, several countries have expressed interest in resettling some of the Montagnards, and a US delegation began screening refugees last month.