UN Asks Gov’t for Meeting With Montagnards in Hiding

The U.N.’s refugee agency said Tuesday that it has asked the government for permission to meet with the group of Montagnard asylum seekers currently hiding in Ratanakkiri province, and has been waiting for a reply since at least last week.

Thirteen members of the indigenous minority, 12 men and one woman, have been hiding in the northern province since they crossed the border in two groups over the past month.

“UNHCR has asked to be part of a proposed visit to meet the Montagnards, but we have yet to hear back from the authorities,” Vivian Tan, the regional press officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an email.

“It’s hard to say who they are or what they need without meeting or talking to them,” she said. “We’ve been relying on media and NGO reports so far.”

In a statement released Tuesday evening, the UNHCR calls on the Cambodian government to refrain from deporting the asylum seekers and suggests that a joint U.N.-government mission rendezvous with the group.

“The involuntary return of the individuals to Vietnam would represent a violation of international legal obligations which the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia has freely entered into,” the statement says.

Vietnam’s Montagnards, concentrated in the country’s Central Highlands, have been widely persecuted for supporting U.S. and French forces during the First and Second Indochina wars and for observing a form of Protestantism outlawed in Vietnam.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Tuesday that he was unaware of the UNHCR’s request to meet with the Montagnards but that any such proposal would likely be passed on to the ministry’s immigration department.

“I think I will ask the interior minister [Sar Kheng] to let them talk with the head of immigration [Sok Phal] if they submitted a letter…because this is a minor issue,” he said.

General Phal declined to comment Tuesday.

As for the group hiding in Ratanakkiri, General Sopheak said he doubted they were genuine Montagnards.

“I believe they are not really Montagnards; they are illegal immigrants,” he said. “If they were really Montagnards, they would not continue to stay in the jungle. They would show themselves.”

Chhay Thy, coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said he believed the government was ignoring the UNHCR’s requests under pressure from Vietnam.

“I believe the government doesn’t want to cooperate with the UNHCR to find out the truth,” he said. “The Cambodian government does not dare get involved in the case of the Montagnards.”

On Sunday, Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Nguon Koeun said he had recently received a report from Hanoi, via the Interior Ministry, asking Cambodian police to arrest and deport a total of 16 Montagnards suspected of fleeing across the border.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the government’s attitude toward the asylum seekers was a cause for concern.

“It’s startling that Khieu Sopheak thinks that he is even remotely qualified to determine who this group is or what sort of claims this group might have for refugee status,” he said in an email.

“It’s this arrogant, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants attitude that the Cambodian government uses to arbitrarily rule in or out persons seeking refugee status that should raise serious concerns about Phnom Penh’s commitment to refugee protection.”

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