Ratanakkiri Governor Suspects Montagnards Smuggled by Locals

The governor of Ratanakkiri province said Monday that he suspects 14 Montagnard asylum seekers hiding in the forests of O’Yadaw district were illegally smuggled across the border from Vietnam by ethnic Jarai in the area.

A group of Jarai villagers in the district have been helping the Montagnards evade authorities since a group of five arrived on January 3. Nine more arrived on Saturday.

The same villagers also helped 13 Montagnards who crossed the border in late October to make contact with U.N. representatives in late December. The U.N. then transferred the 13 to Phnom Penh to apply for refugee status.

Ratanakkiri governor Thorng Savun said he believed the Jarai smuggled the Montagnards, who say they are fleeing religious and political persecution, into Cambodia from Vietnam.

“The people who have looked after the Vietnamese Jarai must be responsible for collecting those people and hiding them in Ratanakkiri,” Mr. Savun said. “We will file a complaint against those people with the court for hiding humans illegally.”

He also claimed the asylum seekers were not actually Montagnards.

“I wish to state that no Montagnards are hiding in Ratanakkiri, but there are some Jarai people from Vietnam really hiding” there, he said.

The Jarai are an indigenous people who reside primarily in Vietnam’s Central Highlands; they, along with about 30 other tribes, make up the Montagnards.

A Jarai villager who has been assisting the asylum seekers, and who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities, said he did not bring the Montagnards from Vietnam.

“They came by themselves,” he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should determine whether the 14 new Montagnards are legitimate asylum seekers, but did not say if or when the U.N. would be granted access to them.

Gen. Sopheak added that if the asylum seekers were found to be illegal immigrants, anyone hiding them would be subject to prosecution.

“According to the immigration law, if those people want to hide illegal immigrants, they should face the law of Cambodia,” he said.

Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional press officer, said in an email that her office was only responsible for protecting refugees and asylum seekers, and could not help the Jarai villagers.

“It would be unfortunate if people helping asylum-seekers are penalized for an act of humanitarianism,” Ms. Tan said.

pheap@cambodiadaily.com, mueller@cambodiadaily.com

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