Eleven Vietnamese Montagnard asylum seekers hiding in the jungle between Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces were arrested and deported Nov 9, rights workers in Ratanakkiri said Thursday.
The police chiefs of both Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri, however, denied Thursday that any Montagnards have been deported.
“I would like to completely deny this information,” said Reach Samnang, Mondolkiri police chief. “No refugees were sent back.”
The 11 were the last of a group of 61 Montagnard asylum seekers who crossed into Cambodia earlier this year, a rights worker in Ratanakkiri said. Of the group, 34 either returned to Vietnam voluntarily or disappeared, 18 were deported, and nine made it to UN protection in Phnom Penh, rights officials said.
The rights group in Ratanakkiri received news about the deportations on Nov 15 from hill tribe members in contact with the Montagnards. But the information was kept secret to protect other pockets of asylum seekers hiding near the border, the group said.
Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng how he intended to solve the problem of the 11 Montagnards hiding in the jungle during a meeting Wednesday, according to a source who attended the meeting.
The UN officials said they had met to discuss a new plan for the Interior Ministry to take over the asylum determination process in Cambodia.
Sar Kheng told the UN that the matter of the 11 Montagnards was under consideration, the source said.
Right workers have expressed concern that the fate of refugees will be placed under the authority of the Interior Ministry, whose stated policy has been to deport Montagnards as illegal immigrants.
US-based Human Rights Watch has previously accused Cambodian police officers of summarily deporting Montagnards refugees found in Cambodia. Allegations have also been made that police officers were hunting asylum seekers for bounties offered by Vietnamese authorities.
Nikola Mihajlovic, UNHCR’s representative here, and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Following a crackdown on demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 2001, hundreds of Montagnard asylum seekers fled into Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri.
In early 2002, Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement on the voluntary, UN-monitored repatriation of approximately 1,000 asylum seekers back to the Central Highlands.
The deal soured a few months later, following Vietnamese harassment of the Montagnard refugees. Vietnam also barred UN monitoring teams from entering the Central Highlands.
In April 2002, two UN refugee camps were closed and their approximately 900 Montagnard residents were transported to Phnom Penh, where they were processed for resettlement in the US.
The US later resettled 808 Montagnard refugees, said Vincent Keane, director of the International Organization for Migration. So far this year, the US has resettled about 150 Montagnard refugees, he said.
Twelve Montagnard refugees are scheduled to fly to the US state of North Carolina on Sunday, Keane added.
A human rights worker in Phnom Penh said that two of the nine Montagnards that made it to Phnom Penh from border jungles in the past few months are among the group set to depart.
“If refugees can get to the UN in Phnom Penh, they can get protection,” said the human rights worker. “But that’s a very big ‘if.’”
After the 12 Montagnards are flown to the US, 17 will remain in UNHCR custody in Phnom Penh.
In response to a Human Rights Watch statement on Tuesday urging international donors to pressure Vietnam to end its persecution of Montagnards, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dzung wrote: “We completely deny the slanderous and biased information on Vietnam introduced by Human Rights Watch and we are confident that this slanderous and biased report did not [convince] anyone.”