Pech Chreada district, Mondolkiri province – At least 150 ethnic minority members who have fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands in recent weeks are hiding in the rain-soaked jungles here, government officials and other sources confirmed this week.
Mondolkiri province Governor Tor Seuth said representatives of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees told him they have identified a group of 137 hill tribe members in Bousra commune of Pech Chreada district. There is at least one other group of Montagnards who have fled Vietnam in another location in the province, he said.
Despite the UNHCR’s current work to investigate the status of the ethnic minority members, Tor Seuth said he has not received clear instructions from the government as to how the hilltribe members are to be dealt with by provincial authorities.
“I have appealed to the Ministry of Interior to solve this problem quickly, but I have had no response yet,” Tor Seuth said.
This is the second group of hilltribe members confirmed to have fled Vietnam for Cambodia. Last month, at least 38 Montagnards were classified as refugees by the UNHCR and resettled in the US.
Kathrine Grant, the UNHCR’s roving field officer who is investigating the possible refugees, said Wednesday in Sen Monorom that she could not comment on the outcome of her work, other than it is ongoing.
Grant did say that heavy rainfall in Pech Chreade district is making access to the Montagnards difficult.
Torrential rains beset Mondolkiri province early this week, turning mountain roads into rivers of mud. Only the strongest of vehicles was able make the 45 km journey to Bousra commune.
The 137 were met by UNHCR and given protection documents stating they are currently under the care of the UN, according to a Montagnard source in Mondolkiri. He said the group is made up of 23 families of young and old, and 21 individuals traveling alone, most of whom arrived in Cambodia in late April.
The source said the UN also brought 200 kg of rice, tarpaulins and mosquito nets to the group’s remote jungle location, which has been flooded by the rains.
The group remains in hiding from Cambodian authorities in the province, who they fear are working with Vietnamese border police, the source said. Another group of 12 Montagnard men, most of whom came to Cambodia in recent weeks, is in hiding elsewhere in the province.
A spokesman for that group said, “I ask that [the embassies] be concerned about us. If we stay much longer in the jungle we will die.”
Chout Pich, deputy governor of Pech Chreade district, said Thursday that two Vietnamese police officers accompanied by Cambodian district police are in Pech Chreade attempting to locate the 137 and others.
“It’s true, there are Vietnamese officials here,” Chout Pich said. He maintained the Vietnamese officials have not informed the district governor of their presence and are working solely with the police. Chout Pich also said there have been no orders from the Interior Ministry as to how to deal with hill tribe members who enter Mondolkiri from Vietnam.
“I am very concerned about their safety,” Chout Pich said. He said officials in Pech Chreade district and in the neighboring Dam Il district in Vietnam have an agreement to send fleeing hill tribe members back to Vietnam.
“I don’t know if these Montagnards are involved with politics or not,” he said.
District and provincial level officials who did not want to be named said earlier this week that they wanted to assist the refugees, but with no firm guidelines from the central government and with Vietnamese pressure, efforts to do so were being hampered.
According to provincial officials, the police are playing a game of cat and mouse with UNHCR—they are trying to find the refugees and send them back to Vietnam before UNHCR has a chance to meet them.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said hill tribe members who have fled Vietnam would at least be given access to UNHCR, which would determine whether they could be considered political refugees and given asylum either in Cambodia or elsewhere.
The resettlements that have already been completed may draw hundreds of more hill tribes across the border in an attempt to get to a third country, said a human rights worker who recently spent several days in Mondolkiri province.
“I hope [Hun Sen] knows he has potentially opened himself up to a huge influx of refugees now that he has let the 38 go to the US,” the rights worker said. “These people see the US as being the big, elusive goal without really knowing what it is.”
A diplomatic official this week said the possibility that hill tribes with no real claims of political or religious oppression may be making the trek into Cambodia with the hopes of getting passage to a Western country.
But the Montagnard source said the 137, who are Radhe, Jarai and Pnong tribe members who left Vietnam separately but met at some point during the crossing, have said the situation in the Central Highlands has worsened since the government’s crackdown there earlier this year, citing the mass poisonings in that region’s schools and villages.
The source said there are many more groups like the 137 waiting along the Vietnamese side of the border for safe passage into Cambodia.
(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)