Government Won’t Keep UN Out of Ratanakkiri

Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – The government is not preventing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from traveling to Ratanakkiri province amid newly emerging reports of more groups of Montagnard asylum-seekers still in hiding in the province, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Tuesday.

However, the government is seeking conditions from UNHCR regarding its operations to provide protection to fleeing Montagnards from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, he said.

“There is no prohibition on UNHCR, they are free to go,” Khieu Kanharith said on Tuesday. “No one is restricting UNHCR from traveling.”

UNHCR completed the transfer of 198 Montagnard asylum-seekers to Phnom Penh on Saturday, and the organization’s remaining field staff returned to the capital on Sunday. However, several reports of more Montagnards hiding in the jungle have surfaced in recent days, including information passed on to local rights group Adhoc from reliable sources who report that 42 men and women are seeking UN protection.

Khieu Kanharith said he was not completely familiar with all the conditions the government is seeking from UNHCR, but they do include the quick resettlement of the asylum-seekers in a third country and a prohibition on the establishment of a refugee camp inside Cambodia.

It is also imperative that the UNHCR signs a memorandum of understanding with the government, Khieu Kanharith said.

UNHCR officials declined to comment on Tuesday.

Jean-Marie Fakhouri, Geneva-based head of UNHCR’s Asia bureau, who was in Phnom Penh last week to discuss the government’s proposed MOU, said after a meeting with Foreign Ministry officials that he was disappointed with the document.

The MOU did not live up to the type of relationship UNHCR wanted to establish with the government, Fakhouri said.

A Western human rights worker familiar with the MOU branded it a “non-starter” on Tuesday. One stipulation in the document apparently includes Cambodian authorities taking responsibility for determining Montagnard asylum claims in the border regions. Local and international human rights groups have long said that Cambodian police and military authorities have been responsible for the forced deportations of Montagnards fleeing to Cambodia.

However, the rights worker welcomed the government’s statement that UNHCR was not prohibited from investigating the latest reports of asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri.

It was imperative that the “long term” issue of UNHCR’s conditions for working in Cambodia do not slow efforts to alleviate an “immediate humanitarian emergency,” the rights worker said.

Hem Heng of the Foreign Ministry’s press office said Tuesday he was unaware of reports of more asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri province, apart from what he had read in the newspaper, and the UNHCR had not yet contacted the ministry.

Thun Saray, director of local rights group Adhoc, said the information his organization received on the latest group of 42 asylum-seekers was passed on to UNHCR on Tuesday. UNHCR will be contacted today to inquire what action may be taken, Thun Saray added.

Local sources in Ratanakkiri said they feared for the safety of the 42 asylum-seekers amid an increased police and military presence in several villages in the vicinity of where the 198 asylum seekers emerged from the jungle in late July.

(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)

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