Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun threatened on Monday to ask the government to close the UN refugee agency’s provincial office if it does not cooperate with local authorities.
The governor said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Banlung, the provincial capital, has denied local authorities access to three Vietnamese Montagnard asylum seekers who recently walked into the office. Rights workers deny his allegations.
“I just know that three people arrived [in Banlung] and I cannot identify them as refugees because the authorities cannot get access to them for further details,” Kham Khoeun said. “If the UNHCR office still denies to cooperate with us, then I will propose to the Interior Ministry to close this office completely.”
Last week, Interior Ministry officials said the UNHCR requested that the three Montagnards be transferred to Phnom Penh. On Monday, the Montagnards, who said their land was confiscated by Vietnamese soldiers, were still in Banlung.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Monday he had no official information.
Nikola Mihajlovic, UNHCR resident representative, could not be contacted Monday. But other UNHCR officials said the governor’s threats were troubling.“That would be a big problem for future refugees,” one official said.
A human rights official in Ratanakkiri denied the governor’s claims. “The UNHCR allowed local authorities to interview the Montagnards,” he said. “The provincial authorities’ accusations are a trick.”
He said the Montagnards were not brought to Banlung by UN officials or human rights workers. Rather, they traveled two or three weeks on their own before arriving at the office this month.
Another rights worker said the situation in Banlung remains tense. “Until the three Montagnards are transferred to Phnom Penh, it will be a bit nerve-wracking,” the worker said. “With no international staff in the UNHCR office, [the Montagnards] really could be picked up and yanked away.” (Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)