pech chreada district, Mondolkiri province – At least 170 Montagnards now hiding in makeshift jungle camps here after fleeing Vietnam could face food shortages and sickness if they are not given adequate food and shelter, sources here said.
The sources, who have met with some of the Montagnards, also said the seriousness of the situation suggests that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should take control of the situation and open a reception center in the province for the Montagnards while the UN investigates their asylum requests.
At least 170 ethnic minority men, women, children and elderly people have been identified by the UN in at least three secret locations in Mondolkiri province; most have been given documents stating they are under UN protection, which were seen by Cambodia Daily reporters last week.
UNHCR staff assessing the influx provided more than 200 kg of rice, salt, mosquito nets and tarpaulins to the camp of 137 and others last week. But the people in the camp—which includes 27 families—are consuming around 50 kg of rice per day and the supply will soon run out, a Montagnard source said.
The isolated locations of the camp some 17 km outside Bou Sra commune, coupled with the heavy rains that hit the mountainous area, have made access difficult to the potential asylum seekers, a UNHCR staff member in the provincial capital Sen Monorom said.
And a lack of direction at the provincial level as to how to deal with the potential refugees and the presence of Vietnamese officials in Mondolkiri searching for the Montagnards has resulted in the groups remaining in their jungle hideouts, despite the UN protection documents, sources said.
UNHCR officials left Mondolkiri province Friday for Phnom Penh to repair a damaged vehicle, but are expected to return today.
“In the jungle no one can protect them. Though they have legal documents from UNHCR, in the jungle there is no law. They think only about the money,” a Cambodian-Montagnard source said, referring to rumors of a bounty being offered by Vietnamese officials for each Montagnard returned.
Pech Chreada district officials have confirmed that at least two Vietnamese officials are in Mondolkiri, being escorted through the province by Cambodian police.
Heavy rains, which have hit the mountainous area where a group of 137 are hiding, pose serious health threats for young children and old people who are living in the camp, he said.
“They need to be collected together in one group at one place by UNHCR,” the Cambodian-Montagnard source said.
Reach Samnang, Mondolkiri Police Chief, said Sunday his police officers could not locate the reported group of 137 Montagnards and maintained that the UNHCR has exaggerated its reports.
Sau Phan, deputy director-general of National Police, said Sunday that until police locate the Montagnards who fled Vietnam, he could not say how they will deal with the hill tribe members.
“If we find them with UNHCR documents, we cannot say what we will do with them, but we must protect them,” Sau Phan said.
“We will do an investigation and send it to our superiors to solve the problem,” he said. “It is the government’s job to deal with this case.”
Locals in Mondolkiri said weather conditions will worsen in the next month as seasonal rains descend on the province, cutting off access to Bou Sra commune and other remote areas to all but large trucks, which can make the 45 km journey in around 12 hours.
A Cambodian Red Cross staff member in Mondolkiri province said Friday that food stores are on hand to feed refugees in the province if the government gives the go ahead.
Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth said Wednesday he was informed of the new group of Montagnards by the UNHCR and dispatched 12 immigration and intelligence police officers to question the group of 137. Met Thursday by reporters just a few kilometers from the camp, the police officers said they had been unable to locate the group in the jungle.
Ethnic hill tribe members in Bou Sra, sympathetic to the fleeing Montagnards from Vietnam, are keeping the camp’s location a secret from authorities and use coded signals to warn those in hiding of approaching people who may pose a threat, the Cambodian Montagnard source said.
A second Montagnard source said that among the group of police officers searching in the area, at least one was thought to be a Vietnamese official. The camp was moved after police were seen in the area, he added.
Chout Pich, deputy governor of Pech Chreada district, said he was concerned for the safety of the Montagnards as there has been no clear instructions from the Ministry of Interior as to how to deal with groups that enter from Vietnam.
A senior provincial official said last week that a “Thai border” situation—with thousands of refugees living in camps just inside the border—will not be allowed to develop in Mondolkiri province for fear of damaging relations with Vietnam.
Kok Ksor, executive director of the Montagnard Foundation Inc in the US state of South Carolina and a former leader of the FULRO Montagnard resistance movement, said by e-mail last week that another 21 Montagnards have fled Pleiku province for Ratanakiri province. He said hundreds fled Buon Ma Thout for Mondolkiri on April 26.
Kok Ksor said the Montagnards are hoping for safety in numbers, moving in larger groups across the border into Cambodia.
“If the Vietnamese government does not stop its genocide, hatred and racism, all the Montagnard people in the Central Highlands have no choice but to pack up and go,” Kok Ksor said.