Fifteen opposition lawmakers called on Queen Monineath Sihanouk to order the Cambodian Red Cross to offer aid to ailing Montagnard asylum seekers in Ratanakkiri province Wednesday, as a senior Geneva-based official with the UN refugee agency said “time is running short” for Montagnards languishing in the jungle.
“We think that only her Majesty the Queen can help and explain to the leader of the Cambodian Red Cross the humanitarian case that [they] should not discriminate” against Montagnard asylum-seekers, the lawmakers wrote to the Queen, who acts as honorary president of the Cambodian Red Cross.
“We hope the Queen will intervene to help those refugees, the Montagnards, to survive,” the letter added.
Thirty-seven Montagnard asylum seekers with a scarce amount of food, water and medicine have been interviewed and photographed by the Cambodia Daily in Ratanakkiri in the past month. Hill tribe sources claim that as many as 250 asylum-seekers are hiding in the jungle, fighting sickness and a worsening food situation.
Earlier this week, My Samedy, the secretary-general of the Cambodian Red Cross, said his organization “dare not” offer aid to Montagnard asylum-seekers because the government does not recognize them as refugees. On Wednesday, he said, “If Queen Norodom Sihanouk orders the Red Cross to help, we will help them.”
But, he added, “We don’t know whether the government will allow the Red Cross to offer aid or not.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to comment on whether the government would allow the Cambodian Red Cross to provide humanitarian assistance to Montagnards.
“The behavior of the current leaders of the Red Cross is unacceptable,” Son Chhay, one of the lawmakers who signed the letter, said Wednesday. “The Cambodian Red Cross should serve the needs of all people at all times.”
The Queen is currently in North Korea with King Norodom Sihanouk. In April, the King called on the government to open its borders to Montagnard asylum-seekers and said the government’s practice of defining them as illegal immigrants and deporting them was “shameful.” Human rights groups say the practice of deporting Montagnard asylum-seekers a clear violation of the 1954 UN Refugee Convention, of which Cambodia is a signatory is ongoing. At least five Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri were deported back to Vietnam in the past week, rights groups have reported.
Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the Geneva-based director of the Asia Bureau of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, wrote in an e-mail received Wednesday that the Montagnards’ plight was “an extremely complex and highly politicized situation.”
Due to “intense pressure from the authorities,” the UNHCR was forced to close its Ratanakkiri office in April, Fakhouri wrote.
Now the refugee agency is waiting to see a memorandum of understanding, currently being drafted by the government, which Cambodian officials have said will allow the UNHCR to re-open offices in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri.
“Opening an office is not a purpose in itself…access [to asylum- seekers] will be a key consideration and it will ultimately determine the credibility of UNHCR’s presence in these two provinces,” said Fakhouri in the e-mail.
The UNHCR would like to assist the Montagnard asylum- seekers hiding in the forests, but can only do so with the full cooperation of Cambodian authorities, wrote Fakhouri.
“I realize that time is running short for the people who are in this distressing situation,” wrote Fakhouri.
“Addressing this urgent situation should not await the outcome of our discussions, and I urge the authorities to do everything possible to avoid unnecessary loss of life.”