andong meas district, Ratanakkiri province – Im Rithy, 20, steered a ferry boat last year that brought 60 Montagnard refugees from Vietnam across the formidable Se San River.
But these days, if Montagnard refugees attempted to cross the river, they would probably have to swim, Im Rithy said last week.
Ratanakkiri authorities and their counterparts in neighboring Vietnam are on high alert for possibly hundreds of Montagnards believed to be in hiding in the mountains and jungles of these remote border regions.
But with Cambodian government orders and local police threats that anyone helping refugees from Vietnam will be charged with human trafficking, Ratanakkiri’s ethnic minorities dare not provide the sanctuary that they once gave Montagnards fleeing Vietnam.
“I would not help them again,” said Im Rithy. “If I allow them to take my boat across the river, I will face problems with Cambodian police,” he said.
Officials in Phnom Penh and Ratanakkiri said last week they were searching for more than 100 Montagnards following a request from Vietnamese security and provincial authorities.
Reports of the latest influx follows a spate of arrests in the Central Highlands and what human rights groups say is a fresh wave of oppression against Montagnard communities.
“Provincial police have ordered district police to look for [the Montagnards] in the jungle,” said Sev Hean, second deputy governor of Andong Meas district.
Last year, Jarai villagers helped the Montagnards make contact with workers with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who were then offering protection to over 1,000 asylum seekers, said Sev Hean, who is also a member of the Jarai minority.
Now villagers in Ratanakkiri know they cannot give them assistance, Sev Hean said.
“Last time I helped one 16-year-old boy. He was separated from the other refugees…. If they come here again, some villagers might try to help them, but for authorities like me, we cannot do it at all.”
Sal Nguon, 43, a Jarai minority member living on the banks of the Se San river, said many of the refugees crossed the river near his village last year. “Even though I feel pity for them, I still cannot help them,” he said.
Cambodian authorities say they have not found any of the reported Montagnards and are now casting doubt on whether they actually exist.
However, a source close to Ratanakkiri’s ethnic minority population said reports have reached Cambodia of a group of some 200 to 300 Montagnards who have been hiding for months inside Vietnam in jungles bordering the northern portion of the province.
A separate group of some 100 have also been reported in the terrain bordering the more southerly O’Ya-daw district.
Sympathetic villagers inside Vietnam may be supporting the refugees by smuggling supplies to them under the cover of darkness, the source said.
“They can’t go back to their villages because they fear arrest and they can’t cross the border because security has been stepped up,” the source said.
According to the source, villagers in O’Ya-daw—which last year helped refugees cross the border and make contact with the UN refugee agency—were placed under surveillance and harassed by Vietnamese agents.
In the same district, ethnic minority church leaders received “informal threats” from local police officials who said they would face arrest and could be in danger of “disappearing” if they were to assist Montagnards, the source added.
Though rumors of refugees abound, no one has yet been able to locate them, said Ratanakkiri Penal Police Chief Chea Bunthoeun.
Nikola Mihajlovic, chief liaison of the UNHCR office in Cambodia, said Monday that a meeting between his agency, the US Embassy and the Foreign Ministry was held Friday to request access to the border provinces and refugees who may enter the country.
“We need access. The message was clear,” Mihajlovic said. But he added that he was doubtful the government will change its position that Montagnards are illegal immigrants.