The first of 181 Montagnard asylum seekers who recently emerged from the rain-soaked jungles of Ratanakkiri province arrived in the capital Monday, amid reports that four people were arrested in Mondolkiri province while assisting a group of 17 Montagnards not yet under UN protection.
Thirty-one Montagnards, including men, women and 14 children, arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport, where waiting staff from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees ushered them onto a bus and brought them to a rented house in Tuol Kok district.
They join 89 Montagnards already under UNHCR protection in Phnom Penh. The remaining 150 asylum seekers in Ratanakkiri are scheduled to be flown to the capital in the upcoming days.
On Sunday night, Mondolkiri authorities detained two journalists and two human rights workers for assisting a group of 17 Montagnard asylum seekers in Mondolkiri’s Koh Nhek district, close to the Ratanakkiri border, government and UNHCR officials said Monday.
Irish national Kevin Doyle, editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily, Ratha Visal, a Radio Free Asia reporter, Pen Bonnar, head of Adhoc’s Ratanakkiri office and an Adhoc translator will be released today, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said late Monday night.
Despite reports earlier in the day that the 17 Montagnards had scattered into the forests, Khieu Sopheak said they were in government hands and would be transferred to UNHCR protection.
Though government officials will not charge the four men, Khieu Sopheak said they overstepped their bounds.
“This is not their duty to take the Montagnards or asylum seekers to transport them because they had no written permission from the UNHCR,” he said. “They [performed] a duty that does not belong to them.”
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Long Visalo said The Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and Adhoc were exploiting the Montagnards for “political motivations.”
Since it is not their job to assist refugees, he said, they must be getting some benefit from “luring” the Montagnard asylum seekers across the border.
Later in the day, Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the Geneva-based head of the UNHCR’s Asia Bureau, said the government had wanted the UNHCR to participate in the collection of asylum seekers.
“The [government] was discomforted this was carried out by an NGO and two journalists,” Fakhouri said.
But the details surrounding their venture were unclear.
Doyle, Ratha Visal, Pen Bonnar and the translator left on Saturday morning for Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district, near the Mondolkiri border. The government wanted to postpone the trip until Monday, said a source familiar with the outing. Since the government would not travel on Saturday, the UNHCR could not take part in the trip to collect the asylum seekers, who were believed to be the last group still hiding in the province, the source said.
But, the source added, Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun guaranteed that the four, and the asylum seekers they found, would be able to travel safely in the province.
Kham Khoeun could not be contacted on Monday, but Khieu Sopheak said he had spoken to the governor, who said he told the group he could not guarantee protection if they wandered into Mondolkiri and that Mondolkiri was not under his jurisdiction.
Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth could not be contacted on Monday. Reached by telephone, Mondolkiri Police Chief Reach Samnang said he was unaware of the arrests.
Bernard Krisher, publisher of The Cambodia Daily, said in a letter on Monday, addressed to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and co-Interior Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh, that police detained Doyle “while he was in the process of travel in the pursuit of covering the important developments” in the plight of Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia.
Thun Saray, president of Adhoc, said that Pen Bonnar had cooperated with the government and the UNHCR in finding the 181 Montagnards who recently emerged from the jungle, and should be released immediately.
Several human rights groups also called for the speedy release of the detained journalists and human rights workers, as well as the 17 asylum seekers.
“If the [asylum seekers] fled or were deported, we would like more information,” Daniel Alberman, a spokesman for Amnesty International, said by telephone from London. “If they were detained, they are the responsibility of the authorities and we are very concerned about their fate.”
As for the 181 Montagnard asylum seekers now in Phnom Penh, Long Visalo relaxed a bit on the government’s line that it would deport back to Vietnam any Montagnards who have not been resettled into a third country within one month.
“If the UNHCR cannot do it on time, the government may give the UNHCR more time based on further negotiations,” he said.
Resettling refugees is a long process and cannot be subject to deadlines, Fakhouri said.
“There is no way you can give a time frame for this process,” he said. “There is no way a solution can be achieved under that pressure.”
The government also sought the right to determine the status of the Montagnard asylum seekers, but Fakhouri said the government does not yet possess the capacity to determine asylum claims in a credible manner.
He said he was also disappointed in the government’s draft of a much-touted memorandum of understanding that would spell out the conditions for the UNHCR’s operations in the northeast provinces, including opening offices in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri.
“The draft does not reflect fully the type of relationship we wish to establish with the government and does not reflect the level of cooperation we’ve seen” recently, Fakhouri said.
The UNHCR lauded the government for granting it access to the border regions in recent weeks, but Fakhouri said it has received no “tangible guarantee” that it would be allowed back up to the northeast if reports of Montagnards hiding in the jungle surface in the future.
Fakhouri said the UNHCR will continue negotiations with the government.
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung, Lor Chandara and Porter Barron)