bokeo district, Ratanakkiri pro-vince – Just five more minutes could have made a world of difference for 34-year-old Montagnard asylum-seeker Puih Pah on Sunday.
After a two-and-one-half hour wait at a rendezvous point in Bokeo district’s Kachong commune on Sunday, staff with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were about to leave when Puih Pah and four other asylum-seekers finally plodded out of the jungle.
After 16 days hiding in Ratanakkiri province, with one of their group sick—apparently with malaria—the last hike to meet the UNHCR delegation took far longer than local sources had earlier predicted and the refugee agency staff had expected.
Greeted with surprise and some relief, the group of three men and two teenagers, a boy and girl, were hurriedly put in the back of a pickup truck for the three-hour journey back to the provincial capital Banlung, where 30 other asylum-seekers were spending a last night before their scheduled departure for Phnom Penh today.
On Saturday, the first 28 Montagnards who were taken under UNHCR protection in Ratanakkiri—following the refugee agency’s second operation in the province in as many months—were flown to Phnom Penh.
“We came with more than 30 people, but we ran in separate directions when authorities raided us along the way. We do not know where the others are or whether they were arrested,” Puih Pah said before leaving for Banlung with the UNHCR.
Chung Ravuth, UNHCR protection and field assistant, acknowledged on Sunday that the group barely made their scheduled collection.
Based on information passed to local human rights group Adhoc, the five asylum-seekers were supposed to have been hiding near the rendezvous point, Chung Ravuth said.
If the five had not shown up, the UNHCR would have been forced to return to Banlung to seek further information on their whereabouts from Adhoc, which was prevented from taking part in Sunday’s operation by Ratanakkiri provincial police.
But with reports that Montagnard asylum-seekers are still being arrested in Ratanakkiri province, Sunday’s group may have found it difficult to slip back into their hiding places.
“I did not know why [Adhoc] could not go,” Pen Bonnar, Adhoc provincial coordinator in Ratanakkiri province, said later.
Pen Bonnar said he was informed that Adhoc, which has taken part in all UNHCR operations to collect Montagnards since July, could not participate during a meeting Sunday between the UNHCR, foreign ministry, interior ministry, provincial officials and Adhoc.
“I just want better cooperation with authorities…. I am not the one who instigates refugees to run here,” he said.
Though there are reports of other asylum-seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri, no new information on their locations has been received, Pen Bonnar said.
Ratanakkiri Deputy police Chief Khman Vann said on Sunday he was ordered to inform Adhoc of the decision, adding that he did not know the basis for the order. “It’s the leader’s job. I do not know the reason,” he said.
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