Red Cross Staff ‘Dare Not’ Aid Montagnards

The Cambodian Red Cross cannot provide assistance to sick and hungry Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri province because the government views them as illegal immigrants, My Samedy, the organization’s secretary-general, said Monday.

“We dare not offer aid to the Montagnards because the government doesn’t recognize them as refugees,” My Samedy said. “So if we go and offer aid to them, the government will accuse us” of trying to assist them without government approval, he added.

“We cannot help,” My Samedy said.

Separate groups of 21 and 16 Montagnard asylum-seekers have been interviewed and photographed in Ratanakkiri’s thick jungles in the past month. Those 37 and other local sources say that as many as 250 asylum-seekers from Vietnam are hiding in the forests, trying to avoid detection by Cambodian police who have orders to deport them.

A group of 16 asylum-seekers interviewed Friday said they were part of a larger group of 91 Mon­tagnards. They have resorted to drinking rainwater collected in leaves or muddy puddles, and eating tubers, roots and fruit from the jungle. Some sympathetic Cambodian hill tribe villagers have also smuggled them rice.

At least 10 in the group of 91 suffered from high fevers and could barely move, those interviewed said.

The Red Cross cannot take action because neither the provincial governor nor the provincial Red Cross office has reported that Montagnard asylum-seekers are starving in the jungle, My Samedy said.

When contacted Monday, Phat Keomony, director of the Ratanakkiri office of the Cambodian Red Cross, said he was preparing a report detailing the grave living conditions of Montagnard asylum-seekers.

But, he said, provincial authorities must give the Cambodian Red Cross permission to provide humanitarian assistance to the ailing Montagnards.

Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun did not answer phone calls placed Tuesday.

Provincial authorities and police have never received reports that Montagnard asylum-seekers are camped in the jungle, Moung Poy, the province’s second deputy governor, said Monday.

When told that Montagnard asylum-seekers had been interviewed and photographed in Ratanakkiri just days before, Moung Poy said: “I cannot believe that because local villagers never report about the location of the Montagnards.”

Antony Spalton, head of the Cambodia delegation of International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, called the latest reports of asylum seekers in the jungle “shocking.”

But, he added, “The Red Cross can only access the area if there is cooperation with the government.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak did not answer repeated calls for comment on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a group of 17 local rights groups, issued a statement Monday condemning the continued deportations of Montagnard asylum-seekers to Vietnam, “where they are in danger of torture, imprisonment and persecution.”

At least four Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri were arrested and deported Thursday, the statement said.

“I was ashamed when I heard the government deported asylum-seekers without sending them through the judicial system,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project and a spokesman for CHRAC. “It hurts the rule of law in the country.”

Sok Sam Oeun also called on the government to open refugee camps in Ratanakkiri to provide food and shelter to asylum seekers.

“If the UN does not pressure the government, I don’t know when the situation will be resolved,” he said.

Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Phnom Penh, did not answer phone calls placed Monday.

A Western diplomat contacted Monday said that the international community is continuing to apply pressure on the government to stop deporting asylum-seekers.

“We are working on a more abstract level, but if that abstract level is solved then the situation on the ground will be better,” the diplomat said, adding that their discussion with the government does not take into account the asylum-seekers currently scavenging in the jungle.

“It might not be an immediate success, but we need a sustainable solution,” he said.

“The situation right now is terrible,” the diplomat added. “If I could give my own money out of my own pocket to help these people I would.”

Besides a lack of food, water or medicine, the Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri face the real threat of being handed back to the Vietnamese authorities they are fleeing if they are arrested by Cambodian police, a representative from the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Monday.

“If the government is willing to let the UNHCR open offices in Ratanakkiri, then why wait?” the representative asked. “There is clearly a humanitarian disaster up there.”

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