At least one person died and five were missing after a boat ferrying Montagnard asylum-seekers from Vietnam capsized last week before it could cross the Cambodian frontier, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Vietnamese border guards fished the sole survivor, a 6-year-old girl, from the Poko River along with the body of her 4-year-old sister, the news agency quoted Phan Trung Tuong, deputy head of Ia Grai district in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province, as saying.
The girl said those on the boat had been traveling with a group of 16 other Montagnards who made it into Cambodia in two crossings that preceded the capsizing, Phan Trung Tuong said.
He added that some of the 22 asylum-seekers had been repatriated from Cambodia to Vietnam in 2004 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and had since then made several attempts to cross back into Cambodia, but had been stopped by the authorities.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said 18 Montagnards, including four men, four women and 10 children, of whom two are newborns, joined 10 other Montagnards already hiding in the province’s jungles on Tuesday after crossing the Vietnamese border in two boat trips last Thursday.
According to reports from the asylum-seekers in hiding in Ratanakkiri province, a third boatload of Montagnards attempted but failed to cross the border the same evening after Vietnamese authorities twice opened fire, Pen Bonnar said.
Pen Bonnar said the 18 new asylum seekers were earlier among a group of 40 who failed to cross on May 18 after being confronted by Vietnamese authorities at the border. “The villagers told me that the situation is very bad for [the asylum-seekers],” said Pen Bonnar, adding that those now hiding in the jungle lacked clothing and food.
“I think this month more of the refugees cross the border…because this month is easier for them to pass because it’s rainy. The Vietnam authorities [have trouble] to maintain the border,” said Pen Bonnar.
UNHCR has been informed of the new arrivals, he said. UNHCR spokeswoman Deborah Backus could not be reached for comment on Tuesday evening.
Following an April tour of Vietnam’s Central Highlands by Erika Feller, the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, the UN agency announced early this month that it had “no serious concerns” about conditions awaiting 190 Montagnards recently returned, both voluntarily and forcibly, from UN shelters in Cambodia to Vietnam. An official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh referred all questions to an embassy counselor, who could not be contacted for comment.