UNHCR Seeks to Airlift 58 More Montagnards

Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – The transfer to Phnom Penh of 58 Montagnard asylum-seekers currently under UN protection in Ratanakkiri province is scheduled to begin Saturday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugee said Thursday.

A request to transport the asylum-seekers by air to the capital, where they will join 272 Montagnards already under UNHCR protection, was submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.

“We are waiting for the green light. If we get the green light, we are planning to move on Saturday,” said Chung Ravuth, UNHCR protection and field assistant, who is leading the operation in Ratanakkiri.

If the foreign ministry approves, around 30 asylum-seekers will depart Saturday and the remainder will depart Monday, said Chung Ravuth, adding that if no further reports of Montagnards surface in the province, UNHCR staff are also likely to depart. Chung Ravuth said there were, as yet, no new reports on a group of some 30 asylum-seekers who are reportedly hiding in a contested border region between Ratanakkiri’s Andong Meas district and Vietnam’s Gai Lai province.

Ratanakkiri police discouraged the UNHCR from trekking to the asylum-seekers’ reported hiding place on Monday, saying the international organization could be accused of entering territory claimed by Vietnam to collect Montagnards.

Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, who has been a conduit of information between Montagnard asylum-seekers and the UNHCR, said Thursday that he also had not yet received new information on the group’s location in Andong Meas.

Reports emerged Thursday from local villages and a deputy commune chief in Lumphat district that police there arrested two asylum-seekers on Monday. Pen Bonnar said he had received reports that five asylum-seekers were arrested this week.

Reports from other sources of arrested asylum-seekers were also circulating in the province Thursday, including a report that a group of three Montagnards were arrested in Banlung town on Wednesday while trying to locate UNHCR staff.

Provincial officials have denied any arrests and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that arresting and deporting Montagnard asylum-seekers was not a government policy, Chung Ravuth said.

“Last night I contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior”. They asserted that the arrest and deportation [of Montagnards] was not the government’s policy,” he said.

Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Yoeung Balong also told UNHCR that provincial police have no orders to arrest and deport Montagnards and that the reported incident in Lumphat district would be investigated, Chung Ravuth added.

However, a senior police officer in Ratanakkiri told The Cambodia Daily earlier this week that Montagnard asylum-seekers must either find UNHCR protection or be deported by police back to Vietnam.

On Wednesday, the overseas resettlement of Montagnards continued with the departure from Phnom Penh of 22 refugees who have been accepted into the US, Cathy Shin, UNHCR protection and field office, said Thursday.

An additional 14 will leave Sunday for the US, followed by five more on Monday, Shin said. More than 900 Montagnards have been settled in the US since 2001.

Those who departed for the US on Wednesday and those preparing to depart were among 91 Montagnards who have been under UNHCR protection for several months in Phnom Penh and do not include any of the 203 asylum seeker given UN protection in recent weeks.

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