Approximately 50 more suspected Montagnard asylum seekers have been taken into UN custody in Ratanakkiri province after a days-long search in that province’s jungles, officials from the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed Wednesday.
UNHCR staff are interviewing the group to “assess their situation,” David Welin, an associate UNHCR protection officer, said from Ratanakkiri.
Welin said it is too early to determine the status of this group, and would not say if it is indeed made up of Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He did say that there were no medical emergencies in the group.
More than 165 Montagnards remain under UNHCR protection in neighboring Mondolkiri province, where they were escorted out of various jungle hideouts by UNHCR staff two weeks ago and placed in a small tent settlement outside of the provincial capital of Sen Monorom.
Reports have circulated through that camp and elsewhere of perhaps hundreds of Montagnards hiding in eastern Cambodia after fleeing unrest in the Central Highlands.
Many asylum seekers already in Mondolkiri have complained of religious persecution. A group of three men admitted into the camp Monday say travel bans on Montagnard communities have prevented many from reaching their crop fields outside their villages.
Ratanakkiri provincial police officials say the recently located group of about 50 hill tribe members were found on the border between Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces and were taken by boat to a temporary camp.
Provincial police Chief Yoeun Baloung said his officials have not interviewed any of the group yet, but complained that UNHCR failed to tell Cambodian authorities about their search for possible asylum seekers in his province.
A UNHCR team, including Welin, left Sen Monorom for Ratanakkiri last week after reports surfaced of a large group of Montagnards trying to make their way toward the camp already established in Mondolkiri province.
Despite Yoeun Baloung’s criticisms of UNHCR, Welin said provincial officials have been “forthcoming and cooperative” with his staff.
“I feel optimistic that the issue [of the group] will be addressed in an adequate manner,” he said, though he would not give the specifics of how these people would be immediately dealt with.
UNHCR efforts to find and interview potential Montagnard asylum seekers have been overshadowed in recent weeks by reports of continued deportations of hill tribe members found in Cambodia before they reach UNHCR officials.
An estimated 89 Montagnards have been forcibly repatriated in recent weeks, despite assurances from senior Cambodian officials that this would not be done, human rights groups said in a statement made earlier this week.
One source close to the situation said there are “grave suspicions” that a manhunt is preventing asylum seekers from contacting UNHCR.
Lionel Rosenblatt, president emeritus of the US-based Refugees International, said Wednesday after a visit to Mondolkiri that provincial officials there gave the impression that they are concerned about the alleged deportations.
“But they were able to give no detail of how they plan implement the central government’s policy of providing asylum,” Rosenblatt said.
He said the Mondolkiri camp—a collection of some dozen tents staked to a hillside—is adequate for the time being, but “is not a place where people can be maintained in the long run.”