Local officials in Ratanakkiri province are actively preventing a team of U.N. workers in the area from making any attempt to reach nearly 40 Montagnard asylum seekers now hiding in the province.
Six more Montagnards crossed into the northern province from Vietnam on Tuesday, according to local officials and rights group Adhoc, fleeing what the asylum seekers claim is persecution by Hanoi for their religious practices and cooperation with a U.S.-based Montagnard advocacy group.
“I received information about the arrival of those people in Lumphat district and I already ordered my forces to find them,” district governor Kong Srun said Thursday.
A team of three U.N. workers who recently arrived in the province—hoping to reach the 38 asylum seekers there and bring them safely to Phnom Penh to have their refugee claims processed—have been met with hostility by local officials.
“I stopped the U.N. officials for questioning because we saw that they were driving around everywhere on our land,” said O’Yadaw district police chief Choup Vannarak.
“They are not allowed to travel as they wish in the land under my authority because they don’t have a permission letter from the provincial level and Ministry of Interior,” he said.
“I told them they should respect the Khmer law before doing something, and they must respect local authorities, especially the provincial governor [Thorng Savun].”
But since Montagnards began arriving in the province in November, sparking U.N. efforts to help them get their refugee claims properly reviewed, Mr. Savun has been steadfast in his refusal to cooperate.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the team now in Ratanakkiri had been hamstrung.
“An OHCHR mission currently in Rattanakiri is blocked by the provincial police from travelling in the province, except to leave. The provincial governor has been unresponsive to all our efforts to contact him,” Ms. Lee said in an email.
“We have undertaken and will continue intensive communication with the Ministry of Interior and the provincial authorities to find a solution as soon as possible,” she added.
Mr. Savun could not be reached.
Of the dozens of Montagnards —indigenous minorities from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—who have entered the country since November, 23 have made it to Phnom Penh to have their refugee applications processed by the Interior Ministry, according to Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
“In Phnom Penh 13 Montagnards are undergoing refugee status determination with the Refugee Department; 10 are awaiting registration as asylum seekers,” Ms. Tan said in an email.
Meanwhile, the 38 asylum seekers in Ratanakkiri are struggling to evade authorities intent on sending them back to Vietnam.
A Jarai villager in Andong Meas district, who requested anonymity for fear of being targeted by authorities, said he ran into one of the new arrivals while collecting cassava Wednesday morning.
“I didn’t want the man to stay near my house because I am scared authorities will try to find him and arrest me,” he said. “But I gave him a pot and a few cans of rice to cook by himself in the forest.”