The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has dispatched personnel to Mondolkiri province, where 24 Montagnards from Vietnam’s Central Highlands sought refuge a month ago.
Jahanshah Assadi, UNHCR’s regional representative based in Bangkok, said Tuesday in Phnom Penh that UN field officers went to Mondolkiri province Tuesday to gather “factual and objective” information on reports of refugees who have fled to the province.
“I don’t want to prejudge anything they might come back with. They will use common sense and objective criteria in putting together a factual picture of what they come up with,” Assadi said.
Members of the Montagnard community and human rights workers who are following the situation on the Cambodian-Vietnam border have called for UN protection for refugees who have fled the Central Highlands and are reported to be hiding in forests skirting the remote border. They have said there are scores more people seeking refuge than the two dozen, who were taken to the US two weeks ago.
Executive Director of the US-based Montagnard Foundation Inc Kok Ksor, a former senior member of the United Front for Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO) resistance movement, made an impassioned plea by telephone from the US Monday for the international community to protect the ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.
“Now we are crying out to the world, our people are being destroyed,” said Kok Ksor.
Kok Ksor said a representative for the US State Department requested last week that he send word to contacts in the Central Highlands that Cambodia will not accept any more refugees.
He also said that the UN’s human rights and refugee agencies are aware of the levels of suppression in the Central Highlands but fear being drawn into direct confrontation with Vietnam, which maintains the situation is an “internal matter.”
“They [the UN] know our people can’t stay in Vietnam. But if they leave, they must be helped to leave,” Kok Ksor said.
Calling the Montagnards a “forgotten people” by the international community, Kok Ksor said that thousands would opt to leave Vietnam if their security can be assured enroute.
“They don’t want to leave their land,” he said. “But what can they do?”
UNHCR’s Assadi said his organization is taking its humanitarian responsibilities seriously in Cambodia and, as in other countries in the world, will continue to do so with people who are found to be refugees.
“We will visit areas in Cambodia that we have to visit. We are not shying from going to Ratanakkiri or Mondolkiri. We’ve been there, we will go there, we are there,” Assadi said.
Kok Ksor said a total of 38 hill tribe people left Cambodia for US in the last month.
Several sources close to the situation have said that a further 14 Montagnards, on top of the 24 publicly acknowledged by the government and UNHCR, have left the country.
The existence of the 14, who reportedly fled to Ratanakkiri province from Vietnam, was kept secret by local and international organizations, as well as the US’ Immigration and Naturalization Services, which kept them at a number of safe locations in Phnom Penh, the sources said.
US ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann would not disclose the total number of hill tribe members resettled in the US, citing a US government policy of not “discussing numbers or details about individuals.”
Sources close to the Montagnard refugee situation say that while Hun Sen agreed to facilitate the departure of the 24, despite strong protests from Hanoi, any further assistance to refugees must be done covertly as factions within the Cambodian government are vehemently against upsetting Vietnam on this matter.
While the US has taken in at least 24 ethnic hill tribe members, Wiedemann said Tuesday that a blanket offer of resettlement does not exist for anyone crossing the border into Cambodia.
“We’ll address that only when we know whether UNHCR determines that these people are refugees,” he said. “It isn’t a given that the best way to handle these people is to resettle them in a third country.”
Wiedemann said following meetings with government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, that Cambodia continues to assure him it will give UNHCR access to anyone claiming to seek asylum.
But a senior Interior Ministry official said Monday that border police have been instructed to deal with fleeing Montagnards as “illegal immigrants” and immediately repatriate them if they don’t have proper travel documents.
“Every country has the sovereign right to control its borders,” Wiedemann said.
But of the orders to the border police, he said, “That’s not the policy as I understand it.”
Chu Dong Loc, press attaché at the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh, said Tuesday he did not know if the issue of the Montagnard refugees in Cambodia was discussed at last weeks 9th Party Congress in Hanoi.
The congress elected Nong Duc Manh, the first ever member of an ethnic minority, to hold the post of party secretary of Vietnam’s ruling communist party.
Nong Duc Manh is from an ethnic minority in northern Vietnam, Chu Dong Loc said.
Chu Dong Loc said he could not comment on whether the choice of Nong Duc Manh was made to appease in some degree the minorities population in the restive Central Highlands.
Wiedemann said he hoped Vietnam has addressed the problems that originally created the unrest in that area. He acknowledged the possibility of an intensifying refugee situation, but said it “wasn’t an expectation.”