sen monorom, Mondolkiri province – Preperations were under way Monday for two celebrations in this hillside camp for the approximately 560 Montagnard asylum seekers fleeing 10 months of unrest in Vietnam’s central highlands.
As the rough wooden coffin of a camp member who died Sunday night was carried into a cowshed used as a chapel, mourners wound their way around large bags of charcoal meant for a Christmas celebration planned for the evening by the predominantly Christian Montagnards.
But the mood here on the eve of one of Christianity’s holiest days has been darkened by months of living as people without a home, as the Montagnards wait for the UN to negotiate a resolution for them with the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments.
Many still hold out hope for resettlement in the US, said one asylum seeker who eight months ago was one of the first Montagnards to settle in what has become a village of dozens of thatched-roofed tents and several wooden buildings.
“I want the US Embassy to intervene,” he said. “We want to go to America.”
Earlier this year, two dozen asylum seekers were taken to the US. But as the number of asylum seekers grew—the total number under the care of the UN High Commission on Refugees in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces is now nearing 1,000—third-country resettlement ceased to be an option.
Instead, UNHCR has tried to broker a deal that would allow the Montagnards to return to Vietnam under the UN’s care, but the Vietnamese government has so far talks appear to have stalled.
With no end in sight for the Montagnards’ situation, Cambodian authorities appear to have become less willing to follow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order that UNHCR be allowed to interview Montagnards coming across the border.
UNHCR officials in both provinces have reported problems with authorities demanding asylum seekers found in nearby jungles be turned over to them. In October, several Montagnards in Ratanakkiri were reportedly “sold” back to Vietnamese authorities by Cambodian police before UNHCR could interview them .
Cambodian authorities have now tightened control over both Montagnard camps using police guards, a plan Mondolkiri provincial Governor Tor Soeuth said Monday was worked out between authorities here and UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh.
Two journalists trying to meet with Montagnards were told by Tor Soeuth they first had to get permission from Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng or National Police Director-General Hok Lundy.
But this ban is too restrictive, some officials said, including a Cambodian Red Cross representative, and has upset many asylum seekers in Mondolkiri.
“We don’t like the police here,” one Montagnard said.
When asked why, the Montagnard recounted how local law enforcement helped deport dozens of Montagnards to Vietnam in the first few months of this year. Even today, camp members still worry Cambodian police are working with Vietnamese authorities, the Montagnard said.
That fear has come into particular focus now, said one longtime camp member, who predicted the coming dry season could see hundreds of asylum seekers flock across the border.