Human rights workers said Wednesday they are investigating the possible deportation of 49 Montagnards who were staying in Ratanakkiri province and may have been sent back to Vietnam in the middle of the night.
The 49 Montagnards apparently were originally staying in neighboring Mondolkiri province, but left for Ratanakkiri after Vietnamese authorities came to Mondolkiri last week to look for asylum seekers, sources said.
The group was hiding in Lumphat district, near Ratanakkiri’s provincial capital of Banlung, and may have been placed on a truck headed toward the Vietnam border around midnight Tuesday night, human rights workers said. However, it is unclear whether the Montagnards crossed the border, rights workers said.
The 49 Montagnards, unlike a group of 160 ethnic minority members staying in Mondolkiri province, don’t have UN protection documents.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has several staff members in Mondolkiri overseeing the 160 asylum seekers fleeing from unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, planned to send investigators to Ratanakkiri this morning.
Local human rights group Adhoc, which has an office in Ratanakkiri, has submitted a report on the case of the 49, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has dispatched a worker to the northeast province.
“It will take one day more to get a clear report of what happened to the 49,” said Pen Bunna of Adhoc’s Ratanakkiri office. “Right now, it is raining and we can’t get to where the Vietnamese are. The forests are very thick there.”
Mat Khoeun, assistant to Ratanakkiri First Deputy Governor Van Chhunly, said he has heard about the case of the 49 Montagnards, but has not received a report on it yet. Other provincial officials could not be reached Wednesday.
Last week a family of seven Montagnards under UNHCR care disappeared—reportedly put on a truck and returned to Vietnam, according to local sources. The UNHCR is investigating the disappearance.
In recent meetings, Director General of National Police Hok Lundy has assured UNHCR regional representative Jahanshah Assadi and US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann that asylum seekers would be protected. Assadi is scheduled to meet Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng this morning to discuss the situation.
Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch said the message needs to be communicated to authorities at all levels to ensure that the Montagnards are not sent back to Vietnam.
“This needs to translate all the way down to the lowest levels,” she said.
At least one group of 19 Montagnards was deported in late March, two days before Prime Minister Hun Sen said the UNHCR would have access to any others found in Cambodia.
At a makeshift refugee camp five km outside Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri, the situation remains precarious for the approximately 160 Montagnards who remain camped there.
There were alleged arrest attempts of some asylum seekers over the weekend and there were also concerns local authorities may try to use Cambodian immigration laws to repatriate the Montagnards.
The 160 Montagnards are settling in and dealing with almost constant rain, which is turning the camp into a mud field. High winds and heavy rains hit the camp again Wednesday afternoon, whipping the tarps used for cover and further soaking the camp’s inhabitants.
Medicine Du Monde conducted the first preliminary medical assessments Wednesday of the group and identified a seriously ill man probably suffering from appendicitis. UNHCR staff were working Wednesday to get treatment for the man.
Dr Philippe Guyant, medical coordinator for Medicine Du Monde in Mondolkiri province, said a number of the asylum seekers complained of headaches, fever, and intestinal pains. However, the majority were in reasonably good health, he said.
Health workers said they will return to the camp with mosquito nets and medicine today.
Guyant also expressed concern about the long-term health implications once the rainy season in this mountainous province is in full swing.
Cambodian friends and relatives of some of the asylum seekers have been seen arriving on motorcycles to bring them fruit and other food.
Provincial officials, who earlier told the UNHCR that they had only 48 hours with the asylum seekers before immigration laws were applied, have been noticeably absent from the camp since the weekend. They are presumably allowing the UNHCR to continue with their work to provide protection, food and shelter for the asylum seekers.
(Reporting by Gina Chon, Saing Soenthrith and Kevin Doyle)