Cambodian officials in Mondolkiri province confirmed Tuesday they are investigating the apparent disappearance of a family of Montagnards recently given UN protection, despite assurances Monday night from the Interior Ministry that there will be no forced deportation of asylum seekers from Vietnam’s Central highlands.
The family of seven, two adults and five children, were last seen early Tuesday morning being loaded on a truck that was accompanied by six men, two of which were identified as local police officers, sources said.
Their whereabouts were unclear Tuesday evening, the sources added.
A diplomatic source said Tuesday if the allegations that the family was taken away despite their UN protection prove true, a “minor international incident” could occur.
Mondolkiri Province Cabinet Chief Svay Sam Eang said Tuesday evening the disappearance of the family was reported by representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth earlier in the day.
Provincial officials and police said they know nothing about the family’s whereabouts or who moved them, Svay Sam Eang said. Mondolkiri officials have claimed that Vietnamese authorities were in the province.
“Now the seven people are missing from their location. But the provincial authorities do not know about this [incident] or who the officials were who collected these people,” he said.
“The governor will investigate to find out which officials transported the people from O’Reang [district],” Svay Sam Eang said.
UNHCR was scheduled to meet with police Tuesday evening to discuss the incident further, he added.
The family was the only group of some 170 Montagnards hiding throughout the province whose location was know by provincial authorities.
UNHCR reported the presence of the family to a provincial official in Mondolkiri last week and informed them the family was under UN protection. During an interview last Wednesday, Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth showed reporters documents he said he had received from UNHCR placing the family members under that body’s care.
During the interview Tor Soeuth said he had passed on information regarding the family to the Interior Ministry and he was awaiting instruction as to how to deal with them.
But Cambodian National Police Director General Hok Lundy told US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann Monday night that no potential hill tribe refugees have been officially “registered” with the government, saying he had only heard reports of minority groups hiding in the jungle.
During a meeting on the eve of Wiedemann’s departure for three weeks from Cambodia, Hok Lundy assured him there would be no deportation of possible asylum seekers, and that he would make this policy absolutely clear to lower-ranking officials, the ambassador said.
Hok Lundy and Mondolkiri police officials could not be reached for comment.
Wiedemann said the government has confirmed the repatriation of 19 Montagnards in late March, two days before Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered that asylum seekers inside Cambodia be protected and given access to UNHCR.
But both diplomatic officials and Wiedemann have said there are “inconsistencies” in the way local officials feel they should deal with the hill tribes reported to be hiding in the province.
“We made it very clear what the US expected to happen, which is the government will abide by its pledges to protect these people and work with UNHCR to see if they are refugees,” Wiedemann said Tuesday.
Despite the allegations of a disappearance, a Montagnard source in the province said Tuesday that he suspected O’Reang district officials called the family in for questioning and doubted they were returned to Vietnam, as some sources fear.
Two UNHCR investigators returned to Mondolkiri province Monday to continue their monitoring of the hill tribe influx.
However, Montagnard sources in Mondolkiri have questioned UNHCR’s apparent reluctance to deploy more resources to the operation and the general slow handling of the refugee issue to date.
UNHCR’s Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi said in Phnom Penh recently that the organization’s presence had been scaled back in Cambodia but denied that the politically sensitive Montagnard influx was being ignored.
Assadi said that following careful research of the situation, UNHCR would then decide on how best to move forward.
The increasing influx of asylum seekers from Vietnam to Cambodia has reportedly startled diplomatic missions in Phnom Penh who might be called on to offer resettlement.
Embassy officials are understood to be pushing for Cambodia to take responsibility for the refugees on Cambodian soil, which marks a stark turn around since the high profile resettlement last month in the US of the first 24 Montagnards officially acknowledged to have fled into Cambodia.
At least 38 hill tribe members who fled ethnic unrest in Vietnam have already been interviewed by UNHCR and resettled in the US. Observers say this could spark a mass exodus of Montagnards from the Central Highlands.
A diplomatic source also said Tuesday that UNHCR is being encouraged to take a greater role in the situation, saying there should be a UNHCR presence in more than one location in Mondolkiri to best cover all potential asylum seekers in this large remote province.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an umbrella group of human rights organizations operation in Cambodia, is due to release a statement today calling for the government to cooperate with UNHCR’s work to identify refugees in Mondolkiri and provide protection to those the UN identifies as potential asylum seekers.
(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)