The UN’s regional representative for refugees said Thursday he hoped conditions in Vietnam will improve to the point that Montagnards taking refuge in Mondolkiri province “can one day return safely and voluntarily” to Vietnam.
After a morning meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng at the Ministry of Interior, Jahanshah Assadi said the Cambodian government reconfirmed its “humanitarian approach” to Montagnards who have fled unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He said Sar Kheng agreed that Montagnards staying in Cambodia can have temporary asylum.
Sar Kheng spoke briefly with reporters after separate morning meetings with Assadi and Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung. Sar Kheng, who is also co-minister of interior, said the UN “is working to find a way to send the Vietnamese back to Vietnam. And I support this proposal.”
Assadi, who is based in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Bangkok office, arrived in Phnom Penh on Monday for his third visit to Cambodia in recent weeks. He said Thursday that he would leave today for Mondolkiri, where 160 Montagnards are gathered 5 km outside Sen Monorom in a makeshift camp.
“I am very grateful for the cooperation we have received [from the central government],” Assadi said. “We will be looking for greater cooperation at the provincial level.”
Assadi stressed that the Montagnards are not in a refugee camp. “It is just a location where 160 people are residing,” he said.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Nguyen Duy Hung would only say that his meeting with Sar Kheng was a discussion on the relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. He added, however, that “there are no refugees from Vietnam. [But] we are checking the information.”
Montagnard asylum seekers in Mondolkiri continued Thursday to express their fear that they will be returned to Vietnam. Information has reached Sen Monorom of the deportation earlier this week of more than 50 Montagnards from Ratanakkiri province. UNHCR staff were to travel to Ratanakkiri to investigate these deportations. Officials confirmed the deportation, but there are discrepancies over the number of Montagnards who were sent back to Vietnam.
Vorn Chhunly, first deputy governor of Ratanakkiri province, said Thursday that a total of 55 people were “safely” returned to Vietnam through the border crossing at O’Ya-daw district earlier this week.
Vorn Chhunly said that one group of 41 people was arrested Monday in Lumphat district. A group of 14 was arrested Tuesday in O’Ya-daw district, he said.
But a Human Rights Watch representative said Thursday that a total of 63 Montagnards, most of them ethnic Jarai, were deported as illegal immigrants this week.
A police report did not state whether they were Montagnards, saying only that they were illegal immigrants from Vietnam, according to Vorn Chhunly. He added that he has noticed many more illegal immigrants coming to Ratanakkiri during the past month.
Another source, who requested anonymity, was also told by authorities that a total of 63 were sent back to Vietnam, including the first group of 49 arrested and sent back Monday.
The source said the second group of 14 and another group of eight were arrested by Cambodian police Tuesday night and taken to the Vietnamese border by truck. The group of eight escaped when they jumped from the truck before it reached the border, the source said.
The group of 14 was handed over to Vietnamese authorities at 11 pm Tuesday, according to the source. Some of the Montagnards cried as the Vietnamese police either put them in handcuffs or tied them up, the source said.
“It was a fairly pitiful scene,” the source said.
When asked Thursday of reports that Montagnards had been returned from Ratanakkiri, Assadi said, “we will investigate all such reports of return to see, number one, if it is actually correct. And, number two, to ensure that such returns do not happen again.”
Police officials in O’Ya-daw district are reported to be cooperating with plainclothes Vietnamese policemen who have set up checkpoints on Route 19 and another road that runs from Route 19 to Mondolkiri province.
The plainclothes Vietnamese policemen have been searching forests and visiting villages where they suspect Montagnards are hiding. They have been returning to these villages up to three times daily, entering homes and asking villagers if they have wildlife to sell, sources said.
There are some reports of Vietnamese plainclothes policemen renting homes in Ratanakkiri villages that are most suspected of harboring asylum seekers, according to the Human Rights Watch representative.
Many villages in O’Ya-daw district are made up of ethnic Jarai hill tribe members, and many asylum seekers from Vietnam are also ethnic Jarai and speak the same Jarai language.
Fueling fears in the makeshift camp in Mondolkiri are reports of reprisals against Montagnards who have been returned to Vietnam in recent months. Included in these reports are stories of arrests and torture, though no such incidents have been confirmed or witnessed by sources in Mondolkiri.
Despite the rain and uncertainty facing asylum seekers in Mondolkiri, a degree of normalcy is emerging at the settlement of makeshift tents staked to a muddy hilltop.
Families settled down to a late afternoon meal Thursday. Earlier in the day, a number of young Montagnard men from the camp played football barefoot in the rain with several youths from nearby Sen Monorom town, who brought the football to a nearby field.
UNHCR staff in Sen Monorom Thursday were preparing for the arrival of Assadi late today. His visit is expected to be a morale booster to the four UNHCR staffers who have watched over the camp around the clock since Friday, as well as to the Montagnard asylum seekers.
Fifteen Sam Rainsy Party parliament members Thursday urged the government to grant political asylum to the refugees and to cooperate with the UN.
“The Cambodian authorities must prevent any form of forced repatriation as long as the UNHCR has not provided its assessment of the situation and the status of the concerned persons,” the members wrote in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle and Seth Meixner in Sen Monorom)