UNHCR Reaches First Montagnard Asylum Seekers

O’Yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – Forty-two bedraggled Montagnard asylum seekers emerged from the jungle in O’Yadaw district Sunday and were placed under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who moved the group to a site in the provincial capital Banlung to determine their request for protection as refugees.

The 40 men and two women were the second group of Montagnards to emerge from weeks and months of hiding in the district after crossing the Cambodian border from Vietnam’s neighboring Central Highlands, which were wracked by local ethnic minority hill tribe protests for land rights and religious freedom in April and in 2001.

On Friday, the first asylum seekers to surface from the jungle were two men believed to be seriously ill. Later the same day, the two were escorted to Ratanakkiri Referral Hospital in Banlung by local human rights group Adhoc. They are currently receiving treatment for suspected pneumonia.

On Sunday morning, six male Montagnards were the first to emerge from the forest near Pok Por village in Pok Nhai commune, where they were met by UNHCR acting country representative Thamrongsak Meechubot and five officials from the Interior Ministry and one Foreign Ministry official who are in the province to investigate long-running reports that some 250 asylum seekers were languishing in the jungle.

Nervous but resolute, the six marched out of the surrounding foliage and presented themselves to the UN staff, who asked them several questions before registering their names as asylum seekers. Many told of land confiscations and suppression of their Protestant faith in their home province of Gia Lai which had made life practically unlivable for the area’s ethnic minorities.

A second group of four men and two women emerged within an hour, while a third group of five men surprised the UN and government delegation when they strolled in off the village path where the UNHCR, ministry and local officials had parked their vehicles.

With the numbers of asylum seekers seeping out of the surrounding forest increasing, and the UNHCR with only two Land Cruisers, a decision was made to move the Montagnards in small groups to the district police headquarters in O’Yadaw district town.

As the UNHCR vehicles departed Pok Nhai commune, they were flagged down on the road and five more asylum seekers, who sprinted across a cashew nut plantation and boarded a rented pick-up truck that had offered to help the UN move those emerging from the forest.

Eleven more asylum seekers emerged shortly after from Som Trak village, Som Thom commune and were picked up by the UN. More asylum seekers emerged and the UN made several shuttle trips from the district police headquarters to pick up those who came out of hiding.

“I was expecting some people. It is a good number, 42. It was worth coming out here for, but we will see. There might be more,” said Meechubot.

Lauding the cooperation with Cambodian officials, Meechubot said “we have to decide tonight what our plan is tomorrow. We will organize this group first.”

“We will have to do the status determination of these people. Now we are taking them as asylum seekers. Then we have to interview them and determine whether they have any good reason for leaving their country. And if they demonstrate they have a good reason for leaving their country…we will have to find a solution,” he said.

After being photographed and interviewed by Interior Ministry officials and district police, the 42 boarded an antiquated logging truck that transferred them to Banlung, where they were housed at the former UNHCR office in the town.

“Today we did a good job with UNHCR. We kept security for them to travel from the jungle to the site. Tonight we will protect them to guarantee their safety,” said Ratanakkiri Province Police Chief Yoeung Baloung. Pen Bonnar, provincial director of local rights group Adhoc, who led the UN and government delegation to O’Yadaw district after receiving information on the location of some asylum seekers, said Sunday night that there are more Montagnards still in hiding.

“Yes, there are more and we plan to go tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” he said.

Based on interviews over the past five weeks and information from local hill tribe sources, there are still women and children in hiding in the province.

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