After nearly two weeks of stalling, the Ministry of Interior on Thursday sent officials to join representatives from the U.N. on a trip to meet a group of 13 Montagnard asylum seekers who have been hiding out in the forests of Ratanakkiri province since they crossed into the country from Vietnam over the past six weeks.
Since late last month, the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been lobbying the government to allow the group of Montagnards to come to Phnom Penh to have their asylum requests processed.
Sok Phal, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said he authorized the trip but could not confirm when the officials would meet the Montagnards, who say they are fleeing violence and persecution in their home country.
“I have already sent my officials with the UNHCR and [OHCHR]… but I do not know whether they can meet the Montagnards yet,” General Phal said Thursday.
“I told my authorities to report to me once they receive information or if they meet the Montagnards.”
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the OHCHR, on Thursday confirmed the government-U.N. delegation “travelled today to Ratanikkiri to meet with the Montagnards reportedly seeking asylum.”
Chhay Thy, coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said the group arrived in the northeastern province Thursday afternoon and planned to meet provincial governor Thorng Savun today.
The 13 Montagnards—members of an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—have been camped in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district and have so far evaded local police, who have called the group “illegal immigrants” and threatened to deport them if captured.
Thursday’s trip to the province comes after a U.N. team returned to Phnom Penh on December 5 following an unsuccessful three-day effort to negotiate a meeting with the asylum seekers, with local officials insisting on a letter of permission from the Interior Ministry.
An Interior Ministry statement released on Wednesday morning quoted a December 5 letter from Interior Minister Sar Kheng to Jean-Francois Cautain, the E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia, saying: “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.”
But both Interior Ministry and provincial officials remain skeptical of the group’s insistence that they are Montagnards with legitimate asylum claims.
A group of Cambodian Jarai—one of the approximately 30 tribes that make up the Montagnards—have been providing the asylum seekers, who have split into three smaller groups, with food and shelter since they crossed the border.
With the U.N. in the province last week, the Jarai declined an offer from the delegation to help move the Montagnards, for fear that the operation, without the blessing of the government, would jeopardize the group’s safety.
One Jarai villager, who has been helping care for the Montagnards and requested anonymity due to fear of retribution, said Thursday that Adhoc had informed him that U.N. representatives were returning to the area.
The villagers said the Jarai would wait until negotiations between the U.N., Interior Ministry and provincial officials take place before deciding on whether to escort the delegation to the Montagnards.
“I heard…that the U.N. is returning, but we have to wait until the meeting before we decide on whether to take them,” he said.