Concern for the health of possibly hundreds of Montagnards from Vietnam who are believed to be hiding in the rain-drenched jungles of Ratanakkiri province were expressed on Tuesday by health and refugee agency officials.
The Montagnards—which could number as many as 300—are being hunted by Vietnamese and Cambodian security officials after allegedly fleeing to Ratanakkiri province from the neighboring Central Highlands region of Vietnam, police officials said.
Nikola Mihajlovic, chief liaison at the Phnom Penh office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said his organization was being denied access to investigate the latest reports and blasted the government’s treatment of the fleeing Montagnards.
“We are certainly concerned that people out there need help and assistance,” Mihajlovic said. “Since February and March we were forbidden to go to the border…even if we are in the province we cannot move freely.”
Reports that more than 100 Montagnards entered the province have circulated since early this month, but the government—which has determined the Montagnards are illegal immigrants rather than possible refugees—has not respond to requests to investigate, Mihajlovic said.
Mihajlovic said UN refugee investigators will not go Ratanakkiri province until the government give assurances of access.
“The government has to be reminded of its obligations to refugees,” Mihajlovic said, adding that next month is the 10th anniversary of Cambodia’s signing of the UN refugee convention.
Nuth Vutha, assistant project manager for Health Unlimited NGO in Ratanakkiri province, said if refugees are in hiding they likely face grave danger camped in the province’s malaria-infested jungles.
“If such things are happening and they are not allowed come to the villages and must stay in the forest, it is very dangerous,” Nuth Vutha said.
“I am worried these people will be attacked by malaria,” Nuth Vutha said, adding that rains have hit the province almost every day for the past two months,.
“If they stay long in the jungle they will suffer from a lack of food. It would be very terrible,” he said.
Hanoi deployed troops to the Central Highlands last year to crush Montagnards protests for land rights and religious freedom. The crackdown prompted the exodus to Cambodia of more than 1,000 Montagnards, most of whom were granted resettlement in the US.
The latest reported influx follows a renewed crackdown on Montagnard religious practices, church leaders and land rights activists by Hanoi. More than 30 people have been arrested in the Central Highlands since June, the group Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
A source in Ratanakkiri said Cambodian ethnic minority villages near the Vietnamese border have been under police surveillance and villagers have been warned not to assist any Montagnards who might have fled across the border.
Villagers have also been harassed by plain-clothes Vietnamese agents operating in the province who have visited villages and entered the homes of people who helped the refugees last year.
“There is nobody willing to help people coming across now,” he said. “People are very intimidated.”
Interior Ministry spokesman General Sok Phal said authorities are searching for the reported Montagnards, but none have been found.
Vietnamese officials reported more than 100 Montagnards are thought to be hiding in the province, most likely in mountainous jungle territory to avoid detection, Sok Phal said.
“We have looked for two or three weeks but did not see anyone. We cannot make a report on this yet,” he said.