The UN refugee agency plans to travel to Ratanakkiri province today to evaluate the needs of Montagnard asylum seekers who have languished in the dense, malaria-infested jungles for weeks, said Thamrongsak Meechubot, Phnom Penh representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
At a meeting on Tuesday between UNHCR staff and senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government agreed to allow the UNHCR assess the asylum claims of all Montagnards currently in hiding, Meechubot said.
“The government ensured us that we are free to go anywhere we want and do whatever we want,” he said.
The UNHCR’s presence in Ratanakkiri is expected to draw out hundreds of Montagnards who have stayed in hiding with little food, water and medicine, fearing arrest and deportation if they are found by provincial authorities.
One hundred and twenty-seven asylum seekers, including several young children who were sick and hungry, have been interviewed since June 6. Hill tribe sources estimate that up to 250 Montagnards are hiding in the province.
The UNHCR is sending a small delegation accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Ratanakkiri, Meechubot said. If the UNHCR finds any asylum seekers, it will provide them with humanitarian assistance first, and then determine their asylum claims later.
“The main aim is humanitarian assistance on the spot if they are refugees. They need help,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday.
The asylum seekers hiding in the jungle have no reason to fear the government if they are not Montagnard militants or illegal immigrants, he added.
Local sources and human rights groups have documented the deportations of more than 100 Montagnards from Cambodia in the past year.
One representative from the US-based Human Rights Watch, however, warned: “There will need to be good cooperation with local authorities in order to guarantee that no asylum seekers are deported as a result of revealing themselves to the UN.”