Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Fresh reports of more groups of Montagnard asylum-seekers in hiding in Ratanakkiri province have been received by local human rights group Adhoc, the organization’s director Thun Saray said Monday.
Local sources in Ratanakkiri have provided information to Adhoc on a group of some 42 men and women who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands and are now in hiding in the jungle.
The new reports of fleeing asylum-seekers come just one day after the withdrawal of UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff from the province, following the transfer to Phnom Penh of 198 Montagnards who left their hiding places last month after a government guarantee that they would be provided safe passage to seek UN protection.
Thun Saray called on Monday for the return of the UN to Ratanakkiri and for government cooperation in providing assistance to fleeing Montagnards; an issue he said that was unlikely to be resolved “next week or next month.”
“We have only heard that there are two groups now in different places. All together there are 42. There are 21 in each group,” Thun Saray said, adding the information will be passed on to the UNHCR today.
“I think the government side should allow the UNHCR to work [in Ratanakkiri], particularly if they still have asylum-seekers,” he said.
Cambodia is obliged to live up to its commitments as a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Thun Saray said. It is also imperative that the UN works with Vietnam in addressing the root causes that have prompted the Montagnards’ flight to Cambodia, he added.
Local ethnic minority sources in one area where the new group of asylum-seekers are reported have also told of an increased police and military presence in the area since the UNHCR helped the 198 asylum seekers leave the jungle.
Ratanakkiri Second Deputy Governor Muong Poy said Monday he was unaware of any reports of asylum-seekers still in hiding but said it was unlikely to be a problem.
“UNHCR might come to pick them up as they did before. I do not know whether they will come or not. It is no problem with the province because we have cooperated with each other well before. So if [UNHCR] want, they can come again,” said Muong Poy, who questioned how the asylum-seekers were still able to cross the Vietnamese border.
“[Vietnamese soldiers] have been deploying along the border since long ago. I do not know why they [would] still be able to cross the border,” he said. He also denied claims that extra Cambodian police officers have been deployed to border areas.
One official in Banlung town said Sunday night that extra police officers have been dispatched to border provinces in an operation he referred to as a security “belt” to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing the border and intercept those who had already crossed.
He also said that photographs of reported Montagnard “ringleaders” were shown to provincial police officers.
Familiar with the deportation from Ratanakkiri of asylum-seekers in the past, the official also doubted that the heightened police presence would deter them from crossing the border to hide in Cambodia.
Even before UNHCR staff left Ratanakkiri on Sunday morning, reports circulated Saturday night that two men and one woman, who claimed to be asylum-seekers, had reached Banlung town and were searching for the UN.
A 26-year-old Banlung resident who met the group said Monday that he had told the three that the last 31 asylum-seekers had departed the province by airplane Saturday at lunch time. The three, carrying backpacks, turned and left the town, he said.
Cathy Shin, UNHCR protection and field officer, said Monday that the UNHCR did investigate reports of the three would-be asylum-seekers on Saturday night but were unable to locate them.
Shin also said UNHCR has not yet been informed of new groups in hiding in the province.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)