Andong Meas district, Ratanakkiri province – Pouih lost his shoes days ago. The 29-year-old’s footwear literally fell of his feet, torn apart by the rain and several days of trekking across the rough jungle terrain that separates Vietnam’s Central Highlands and Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province.
With one sock on his right foot and his left foot bare, scratched and bleeding, Pouih sprinted the last 30 meters out of the jungle to reach the rendezvous point where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff had parked two vehicles Monday, some 3 km from Andong Meas town.
Another man in the group of 12 muddy and bedraggled Montagnard asylum-seekers who emerged from the jungle into UNHCR protection on Monday also wore only his socks. The rest sported what remained of canvass shoes and slippers, with only laces keeping them on their rain-soaked feet.
Panting and sweating, the 12 ethnic Jarai men, ranging in age from late teens to 30 years old, arranged themselves on the road while UNHCR staff distributed bread rolls, tins of sardines and water.
The asylum-seekers said they fled their village in Gia Lai province on Aug 8 and trekked for the last eight days to reach this spot inside Cambodia. For five of those days, they had not eaten, they said.
The sight of four armed Cambodian border policemen on the same stretch of remote road where they had emerged just minutes before did not deter them from forming a circle, kneeling and reciting a prayer around the UNHCR’s small offering of food.
One of police officers later told a Cambodia Daily reporter that they had been hunting asylum-seekers in the Andong Meas area for three days.
“We are patroling to arrest them,” said the officer, who was sent to the district two months ago from Ratanakkiri’s provincial capital, Banlung.
“If we find them, we would arrest them and bring them here [to the district police office] and deport them back to Vietnam by car,” said the officer, declining to give his name.
Before they were loaded into the two pickup trucks hired by the UNHCR for the collection, one 20-year-old asylum-seeker said the group originally consisted of 44 people but they were forced to split up after being chased at night by Vietnamese authorities near the Cambodian border. Shots were fired, he said.
Though 16 remained in his group, they lost another four members three days ago, when they were chased again inside Cambodia, said one 30-year-old. The four men were unable to keep up and may have been arrested, said the man, adding they were pursued by police with a large, tan-colored dog.
A senior Ratanakkiri police officer denied on Monday that any provincial police departments have a dog. But he said that while authorities are cooperating with the UNHCR, border police units still have orders to arrest Montagnards as illegal immigrants.
“We cannot [refuse to arrest] because of the good relations between [Cambodia and Vietnam]. Whatever we do is based on the immigration law,” said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. The officer also confirmed reports by locals that one asylum-seeker was arrested on Friday in O’Ya-daw district and deported back to Vietnam.
Monday’s collection was scheduled to include a six-hour hike farther into Andong Meas district where some 30 other asylum-seekers are reported to be hiding. However, the group may be located in a contested border area between Cambodia and Vietnam and the police have asked the UNHCR to consider such an operation carefully, Chung Ravuth, UNHCR protection and field assistant, said Monday.
“It is not in Vietnam or Cambodia,” Chung Ravuth said. “That is why [provincial authorities] asked us to reconsider this carefully because it might mean we are bringing people from their country.“Until this hour we do not abandon [the operation], but we postpone.”
Asylum-seekers have also been reported in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district, he added.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, said Monday he was happy with the cooperation from authorities in the collection of the asylum-seekers. But he expressed concern for the 30 hiding in the contested border area.
“We worry about those people,” said Pen Bonnar. He said he hoped that information on the location of the 30 that has been passed to provincial authorities would not be misused, either to arrest or deport them.
Since UNHCR operations resumed Friday, 58 Montagnards have been taken under protection in Ratanakkiri.