sen monorom, Mondolkiri province – The fate of more than 150 Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam remains precarious after provincial and district officials came to a makeshift refugee camp here Saturday night and tried to remove people from the group, which is now under UN protection.
During a 90-minute standoff in the rain-sodden camp, five staff members of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees negotiated to prevent the removal of any Montagnards.
One asylum seeker targeted by Cambodian officials is believed by several sources here to be on a list of people sought by Vietnamese authorities. An official identifying himself as a deputy provincial police officer said the man was not a refugee and had lived in Cambodia for several years.
The UNHCR staff said it is up to them to determine who among the group are refugees and that they need time to complete the process.
The majority of the 150 were brought to Sen Monorom Friday from the jungles of Pech Chreada district, where they said they had been hiding for the past month since crossing into Cambodia.
Saturday’s standoff follows the disappearance last week of a family of seven Montagnards that was also under the UNHCR’s protection. UNHCR Associate Protection Officer David Welin, who arrived here Friday, said Sunday that UNHCR is working with the government to ascertain what happened to the family. Sources here have said the family was returned to Vietnam, though that could not be confirmed.
An official identifying himself as a deputy provincial police chief confirmed to UNHCR workers Saturday evening that the missing family was returned to Vietnam because they were illegal immigrants.
“UNHCR is seeking to clarify with the government what happened to the family of seven and whether any action has been taken which could be deemed to violate international law,” Welin said.
Cambodia is a signatory to a 1951 UN convention on refugees, and senior government officials have assured diplomats and rights workers that the Montagnards will be given access to the UNHCR. But there appears to be a continued lack of direction from the central government as to how the asylum seekers should be dealt with.
On Friday, a senior provincial official told UNHCR staff that the organization would be allowed only 48 hours with the asylum seekers before Cambodian immigration laws were applied. It is unclear exactly how this will impact the Montagnards’ situation, which could change today with the passage of that deadline.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said Sunday he has yet to receive an update on the Montagnards.
“They have not reported to me about the situation. Please leave this work to the government to work it out,” Sar Kheng said.
Mondolkiri province Governor Tor Soeuth, who was called back to Phnom Penh late last week, refused to comment on the situation. An aid to Tor Soeuth said Sunday the governor is expected to travel to Vietnam May 20 to discuss border demarcation issues, but it is unclear if the case of the Montagnards will also be raised.
Heavy rainfall in this remote province has increased the hardships for the asylum seekers, many of whom are living under blue tarpaulins provided by the UN. With no police or military security offered by the government, UNHCR staff are mounting a round-the-clock presence, sleeping in nearby vehicles and at times among the refugees.
A local Cambodian health official who visited the site expressed concern to a UNHCR worker about the group’s continued welfare due to the large number of infants and small children camped outdoors.
The majority of the Montagnards spent weeks hiding in jungle locations before being escorted here Friday.
“UNHCR are currently providing minimal material assistance and ensuring the continued safety of this group…who are deemed to be of concern to the UNHCR,” Welin said. “UNHCR is seeking a solution for this group in cooperation with the Cambodian government.”
Already, at least 24 Montagnards have been interviewed by the UNHCR and resettled in the US, which brokered an agreement with Prime Minister Hun Sen in late March to allow the UN access to this first known group of refugees from the Central Highlands.
Diplomatic officials have declined to comment on the likelihood that more Montagnards will go to third countries, instead saying that asylum in Cambodia might be a better option.
Hun Sen has cooperated with the UNHCR thus far, despite pressure from Vietnam for the return of Montagnards crossing into Cambodia. But he has also said he would not allow a refugee crisis to develop along the border and would refuse to establish large camps of asylum seekers.
Reports that more than 1,000 Montagnards have fled the Central Highlands and are hiding on Vietnam’s borders with Cambodia and Laos are circulating among the Montagnard refugees here.
Montagnards interviewed at the camp, most of whom appear to have left their homes quickly and with very few belongings, say they are terrified of returning to Vietnam, where they claim the oppression and arrests of hill tribe members continues following the February crackdown in the Central Highlands.
As night falls on this predominately Christian group of frightened and tired Montagnards, candles are lighted and small numbers of people gather to recite prayers in their native Pnong, Radhe and Jarai dialects.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)