UNHCR Staff Plans Return to Phnom Penh

Amid circulating reports that provincial authorities are scouring the jungles of Ratanakkiri province for more Montagnard asylum-seekers in hiding, the UN refugee agency will complete its third mission in the province and return to Phnom Penh on Wednesday, agency officials and human rights workers said.

All UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff will return to the capital after the departure by airplane of the final group of 61 asylum-seekers pulled from the jungle on last week’s collection mission, said Chung Ravuth, UNHCR field operation and assistance officer. The first 33 were airlifted Monday to Phnom Penh.

“We will just go [back] for a while,” he said by telephone Monday. “If there are more [refugees] we will come back. Let’s wait and see.”

Yet human rights workers who consistently have been monitoring the asylum-seekers’ situation in the province said Monday that there were more groups in need of assistance hiding in Andong Meas district and the O’Leave area.

“We heard there are 83 more. We hope UNHCR will come back and pick them up later,” said Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator of the rights group Adhoc. “We are concerned about their safety because the authorities are patrolling the jungle.”

The UN refugee agency must determine the specific location of the reported groups before returning to the province, Chung Ravuth said.

“We will not leave them…but the location is not so clear,” he said. “We need to discuss more.”

Meanwhile, Ratanakkiri police denied any knowledge of the asylum-seekers’ current location, and also denied reports that they were hunting for anyone near the Vietnamese border, said Hor Ang, deputy provincial police chief.

“There are no police patrolling in the jungle,” he added.

Last month, following a July UNHCR mission in the province which saw 198 Montagnards escorted to safety, ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri reported large police deployments in search of additional groups of asylum-seekers in hiding in the jungles. Provincial authorities at the time denied reports of the increased police presence.

The UNHCR collected more than 280 Montagnard asylum-seekers in previous visits to the province since July.

The number of Montagnards making their way across the border into Cambodia from Vietnam increased following Easter weekend demonstrations in Vietnam’s Central Highlands for land rights and religious freedom.

Montagnard asylum-seekers have reported loss of their ancestral lands and an ongoing security crackdown on their villages.

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