The aid offered by King Norodom Sihanouk to ailing Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri province cannot be delivered because a royal delegation could not find them after driving around the province on Sunday, said Um Em, undersecretary of state at the Royal Palace.
“The villagers are afraid of us; they hide information,” Um Em said Monday. “We need to have a network to show us where the Montagnards are located, but right now we can’t find the network.”
Last week, the King offered Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri food, medicine and money.
Thirty-seven Montagnard asylum-seekers appealed for food and medicine in recent weeks during interviews at their jungle hiding places.
They and local hill tribe sources say that more than 250 asylum-seekers from Vietnam were in the same predicament in Cambodia’s rain-soaked forests.
However, confusion reigned Monday as to what the government plans to do about the asylum-seekers. The Ministry of Interior, a government spokesman, Ratanakkiri’s governor and his provincial deputy police chief all made conflicting statements regarding their official positions toward the asylum-seekers.
It is unclear whether international aid groups have access to the region, whether police are still deporting Montagnards and whether the asylum-seekers will be protected if found by government authorities.
In a statement released Monday, the Ministry of Interior said it would “closely cooperate” with international and national organizations, especially the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “in order to provide food and medicine to those Vietnamese refugees.”
Contacted later by telephone, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government has “never forbidden” the UNHCR to travel to the border regions.
“They can go anywhere but they have to contact us and we will go together,” Khieu Sopheak said. “We are happy and honored to work with the UN.”
Khieu Sopheak ended the interview when asked if the government would guarantee the protection of asylum-seekers if the UNHCR finds them.
Local UNHCR officials did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. Khieu Sopheak’s statements clashed head-on with comments made last week by Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the Geneva-based director of UNHCR’s Asia Bureau.
“UNHCR’s operation has been severely restricted to the point that, at present, it does not extend beyond Phnom Penh,” Fakhouri wrote by e-mail on June 29. “Following intense pressure from the authorities, we had no option but to close our Ratanakkiri office in early April.”
In the e-mail Fakhouri urged the government officials to act quickly to “avoid unnecessary loss of life.” He also mentioned that the government has blocked other attempts to help Montagnard asylum-seekers.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the Cambodian Red Cross does not need the government’s permission to offer aid to the Montagnards, but he couldn’t guarantee that the asylum-seekers would be protected.
“It is very difficult to distinguish between the Montagnards who are political refugees and those who are autonomous fighters, so if they come out of the jungle authorities will detain them for an interview.”
However Hor Ang, Ratanakkiri’s deputy police chief, said in an interview Monday that he has not received instructions from the government on how treat asylum-seekers.
“There are two types of people: Refugees and illegal immigrants,” he said.
“I don’t know about refugee law, but for illegal immigrants there are two ways to solve the problem: Send them back or punish them” through imprisonment, he said.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun acknowledged on Monday that provincial police arrest and deport Montagnards not because they are ordered to do so, but because the police don’t know any better.
“We will not arrest the Montagnard and send them back to Vietnam,” Kham Khoeun said. “We will keep them and report them to the government and the Red Cross and the UNHCR.
If they are a real Montagnard, we will give them to UNHCR.”
Human rights groups reported the deportation by police late last month of five asylum-seekers from Ratanakkiri province.
“A safe haven has to be established where Montagnards can receive food, medicine and international protection while their asylum claims are being assessed,” a representative of the NY-based Human Rights Watch said Monday.
“You can’t have a policeman untrained in asylum law determining asylum claims on the spot in the forests or along the border.”