Six Montagnards Stuck in UNHCR Office

The government has not responded to a UN refugee agency request to transfer a family of six Montagnard asylum seekers who arrived in the capital Sat­urday, the first to reach Phnom Penh since recent protests in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a top UN official said Monday.

The family is staying at the local office of the UN High Commis­sion­er for Refugees, and UN officials are hoping to move them to a living space in Tuol Kok district, UNHCR country representative Nikola Mihajlovic said.

“I don’t see why they shouldn’t allow us to take these poor souls to the site in Tuol Kok. It’s an unfortunate precedent,” Mihajlo­vic said. The UNHCR office on Street 352 in Chamkar Mon district does not have adequate living conditions, he said.

The UNHCR informed the government about the family’s arrival, as it normally does, and requested they be moved to the Tuol Kok site, where many asylum seekers live temporarily while their claims are reviewed. But instead of allowing the family to leave the UN office, the government insisted on authorizing the transfer, Mihajlo­vic said.

The government is “demanding the UN get authorization for the 10-minute drive to Tuol Kok,” said an exasperated Mihajlovic. But he added: “We will wait for authorization and dutifully re­spect the procedure. We hope we’ll get authorization soon.”

The family, a couple and four children, have been labeled “persons of concern” who must be interviewed further before they can be classified as refugees, Mihajlovic said.

Though the family left after the Easter weekend demonstrations in Vietnam—which news reports from Hanoi said involved about 10,000 Mon­tagnards in three provinces—Mihajlovic had no further information on whether they participated in the event.

“It’s an unacceptable state of affairs,” Mihajlovic said of the Montagnard family still at the UN office. The government “should have less bureaucracy and should be more concerned about humanitarian needs.”

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Thursday that he had not heard about the six Montagnards staying at the UN office.

“If they are really refugees, we will accept them,” Khieu Sopheak said. “But I have one request for [the] UNHCR. The UN should open one office in the Central High­lands and should not make Cambodians have a headache over this issue.”

Khieu Sopheak also responded to criticism that Cambodia is simply following Vietnam in its policy to arrest and deport Mon­tagnard asylum seekers.

“We don’t follow Vietnam,” he said. “We have a legal government so we have done according to our policy and all Cambodian people and government officials are compatriots to the nation. We do not follow Vietnam or Laos.”

UNHCR officials, including Mihajlovic, have repeatedly requested access to Vietnam’s Central Highlands in order to verify claims from asylum seekers and human rights groups that Mon­tagnards are subject to land confiscation and religious persecution.

Vietnam has denied the UN and foreign diplomats access to the Central Highlands. But on Monday the country allowed a group of journalists to tour Gia Lai province under heavy restrictions, one of three provinces where the pro­tests took place.

Though none of the unrest that caused thousands of mostly Christian Montagnards to rise up was evident, the group of journalists were ushered from interview to interview with Vietnamese officials and were not allowed to talk to Montagnard protesters.

Nguyen Vi Ha, chairman of the Gia Lai province People’s Committee, blamed the entire incident on the Montagnard Founda­tion, a US-based group that sympathizes with the Mon­tagnards.

He denied a report from New York-based Human Rights Watch last week that said Vietnamese security forces killed 10 Mon­tagnards during the demonstrations on April 10 and April 11, one from a gunshot wound to the head and the others from beatings.

One protester died after being pelted with stones from other protesters and a security official was beaten to death while another was critically injured, Nguyen Vi Ha said. Most protesters returned home peacefully and those three would likely be prosecuted, he added.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported Monday that a Viet­namese man was forced to shut down his Web site, called Viet­nam International News 24-Hour, after reprinting a BBC article on the Montagnard demonstrations.

Nguyen Manh Tuan, 25, wrote a letter of self-criticism and paid a fine of $700, DPA reported. His Web site has been closed and all information it contained erased. Vietnamese officials said the site did not have a state-issued license.

(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)

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