The U.N. said Wednesday that it has received permission from the Interior Ministry to search for a group of Montagnards hiding in Ratanakkiri province and transfer them to Phnom Penh, where they can apply for asylum.
Both the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with the Interior Ministry, will “undertake a joint mission to Ratanakiri shortly,” OHCHR country director Wan-Hea Lee said by email Wednesday.
“The Ministry has indicated that it currently has no information about the presence of Montagnards in Ratanakiri,” Ms. Lee said.
“If their presence is confirmed and they indicate that they wish to apply for asylum, it was agreed that they would be brought to Phnom Penh to enable them to do so.”
The group of 13 Montagnards —an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—has been hiding in the forest of the northern province for the past six weeks. The group claims to be fleeing violent repression at the hands of the Vietnamese government.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak indicated that the government was willing to accompany the U.N. in meeting the Montagnards.
Quoting a December 5 letter from Interior Minister Sar Kheng to Jean-Francois Cautain, the E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia, the statement says: “Until now, we don’t have information about the present location of the Montagnards.”
“But if their location is revealed, I welcome our officials joining with a group from the United Nations, or allowing the United Nations to communicate with this group,” Mr. Kheng is quoted as saying.
General Sopheak previously said he does not consider the Montagnards to be legitimate asylum seekers, dismissing them as “illegal immigrants.”
Numerous attempts to reach Gen. Sopheak and Sok Phal, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, by telephone Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Ratanakkiri provincial governor Thorng Savun said he had not yet received a letter from the Interior Ministry allowing the U.N. to meet the Montagnards.
“We will not allow UNHCR to meet people in the forest if they don’t have a permission letter from the upper levels,” he said.
During the asylum seekers’ time in Ratanakkiri, a group of Cambodian Jarai—one of the approximately 30 tribes that make up the Montagnards—have been providing them with food and shelter.
One of the Jarai villagers, who was part of a group that traveled to Phnom Penh on Wednesday for Human Rights Day, said that despite concerns about the Montagnards’ health, there was no plan to relocate them.
“We don’t have a plan to move them from the forest because it’s impossible to help them, as authorities still guard the roads and are still searching,” said the villager, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
The villager said that it has also proven difficult to deliver food to the Montagnards due to a heavy police presence.
“All the Degar are now living in different places in the forest… because the authorities were getting close,” he said, using another term for Montagnards.
“Some are suffering from fevers and are not well,” he added.
The villager said he had received word that more Montagnards are planning to flee Vietnam for Cambodia, but that his village would be unable to provide help to many more asylum seekers.
“We will help them if more come over the border, but if there are hundreds, we will not be able to because we will suffer a food shortage ourselves,” he said.
The Vietnamese government began a crackdown on Montagnard Protestant churches in 2001, prompting thousands to flee to Cambodia over the next decade. About 2,000 were granted asylum in the U.S. and other countries, while the rest were deported back to Vietnam, where they were reportedly jailed and tortured.
(Additional reporting by George Wright and Chris Mueller)