The UN High Commissioner for Refugees may travel to Ratanakkiri province later this week to assist hungry and sick Montagnard asylum-seekers after receiving government approval over the weekend, the office’s Phnom Penh representative said Monday.
Thamrongsak Meechubot said he received a call Saturday from an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing him of the decision, but the UNHCR has not received written notification.
“I want something formal,” Meechubot said. “We don’t want to be there and not be able to do anything. We want to receive assurances from the government that they are sincere.”
Meechubot expects to receive a written agreement today defining the conditions for operating in Ratanakkiri. Based on government statements over the past week, it remained unclear Monday whether the UNHCR will be able to assess the asylum claims of the Montagnards—a guarantee hill tribe sources and human rights groups say is necessary for the asylum-seekers to come out of hiding. Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the UNHCR could open offices in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces, but threatened to use military force to flush out what he said were Montagnard militants who may use Cambodia as a base to fight for an autonomous state in Vietnam.
The government is drafting clear definitions of who is a Montagnard separatist and who is a political asylum-seeker, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Monday.
The government suspects that some members of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, or FULRO—an armed resistance group against the Vietnamese government that disbanded in the early 1990s—still linger inside Cambodia. But no arrests have been made, Khieu Kanharith said.
When asked whether the government would allow the UNHCR to determine who is a refugee, Khieu Kanharith said, “The UNHCR cannot act as a lone ranger.”
One hundred and twenty-seven Montagnard asylum-seekers, including several very young children who are sick and hungry, have been interviewed in Ratanakkiri since June 6. Local hill tribe sources estimate some 250 Montagnards are hiding in the province’s dense jungles.
Allowing the UNHCR to open an office in Ratanakkiri is a “necessary, but insufficient response for asylum-seekers,” Sharon Wilkinson, director of CARE International of Cambodia, said Monday. “In order to process and verify claims of asylum-seekers, the UNHCR needs free and unhindered access to border areas.”
Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Licadho, said Monday the government should allow the UNHCR to set up refugee camps in Ratanakkiri. “At a camp, the UNHCR can give the asylum-seekers food and medicine,” she said. “We cannot allow children to go sick and hungry like that.”