Rights workers are questioning the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ cooperation with the government, following reports that officials in Ratanakkiri province deported six Montagnards to Vietnam on Monday after they were allegedly able to locate them through UNHCR information.
The five men and one woman were driven to the Vietnam border by Bokeo district officials, after they arrived in Seung commune’s Chet village five minutes after UNHCR officials, who had been waiting to meet them, left for the day at about 1:25 pm, local rights group Adhoc said in a written report obtained Thursday.
The UNHCR had not assessed their asylum claims before they were deported.
“These types of [deportations], which show a lack of respect for the refugee convention as well as bad faith by the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments in regards to protecting asylum-seekers, provide an extremely poor backdrop for the UNHCR’s recent signing of an agreement regarding repatriation,” an official with New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
On Jan 25, Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR reached a tentative agreement in Hanoi to “strengthen [mutual] cooperation and coordination,” over the Montagnards.
“We remain deeply concerned by ongoing reports of asylum-seekers being deported, right under the noses of the UNHCR,” the Rights Watch official said.
Government officials “knew the exact place [where the Montagnards were located] because they cooperate with the UNHCR,” Adhoc monitor Pen Bonnar said Wednesday.
“Usually when the UNHCR wants to save Montagnards, they have a meeting with the authorities…and say ‘tomorrow we go there,’” but do not identify the exact location, Pen Bonnar said.
When Siv Puh, 26, Rolah Lan, 20, Kapan Jin, 53, Siv Klin, 30, Siv Jel, 35, and Siv Nheut, 31, emerged from the jungle, they approached Jarai commune Chief Siv Chan who then handed them over to Moeung Khem, Bokeo district police chief, and Khum Sokhorn, district governor, Adhoc said.
Siv Chan told Adhoc that the men who picked up the Montagnards “had often come to pick up many refugees” in the past, deporting them to Vietnam before they could reach the UNHCR, according to the Adhoc report.
Chea Bunthoeun, deputy provincial police chief, confirmed Thursday that district authorities collected the six and sent them back to Vietnam.
Contacted Thursday, UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh said they were uncertain of exactly what happened to the six asylum-seekers.
“There was a plan to try and rescue them, but the…mechanism failed,” said a senior UNHCR official contacted by telephone who did not give his name.
“It might have been some kind of misunderstanding,” he said, adding that Vietnamese authorities have pledged not to prosecute returning Montagnards for fleeing Vietnam.
“There are instances when local authorities will make some mistakes,” the UNHCR official said.
The UNHCR was able to pick up 26 asylum-seekers from Kong Youk village in O’Ya-daw district the same day that the six slipped through the net, Meas Khlemsa, an Adhoc monitor said.
Forty-one Montagnards had been successfully picked up by Jan 31 during this Ratanakkiri mission, according to an internal UNHCR weekly situation report.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak and Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Nguyen Thanh Duc could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In O’Ya-daw district, 120 villagers filed a complaint with Adhoc last week, reporting that police have been raiding their houses in the middle of the night searching for asylum-seekers, Pen Bonnar said.
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