A swollen river in Ratanakkiri province is preventing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from collecting 17 asylum-seekers hiding in the province’s O’Yadaw district, the UNHCR and local rights group Adhoc said Thursday.
Police are actively seeking the group located near a tributary of the Sre Pok river, where they are believed to be housed by sympathetic villagers in Yatong commune, said Pen Bonnar, Adhoc provincial coordinator.
“It’s very dangerous because many of the police and authorities” are trying to reach them, he said, adding that the group includes children and a woman.
“Many police were in the forest, so [the Montagnards] moved into the villagers’ houses,” Pen Bonnar said.
The UNHCR, which is in the provincial capital of Banlung, believe bringing asylum-seekers down the river would put their lives at risk, given the weather conditions and a lack of safe boats.
“We cannot and will not risk their lives,” a UNHCR official in Phnom Penh said, adding that the trip up the river would take more than a day.
“We’ve asked that if it is at all possible, they could move to a more accessible location.” The group will hopefully be collected today or Saturday, the official said. He added that he was not aware of police looking for the group.
“We’ve touched base with the local authorities, and they’re being very cooperative,” said the official.
Pen Bonnar said he has advised that the 17 people form smaller groups so they can avoid the police, and then try to reach a road where the UNHCR can pick them up by car.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said the ministry has never issued an order for police to look for Montag-nards so they can be arrested and sent back to Vietnam.
“Montagnards are not animals. Police don’t need to hunt them,” Khieu Sopheak said.
The UNHCR was able to collect six male adult Montagnards by car in Pok Po village in O’Yadaw district’s Pok Nhai commune on Tuesday, Pen Bonnar said.
“They are well because before they met the UNHCR they stayed at villagers’ houses, not in the forest,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Vietnam News Agency reported that Hasim Utkan, head of the Bangkok-based UNHCR regional office, and Vu Anh Son, head of the UNHCR’s liaison office in Hanoi, were in Vietnam’s Central Highlands visiting some of the 94 Montagnards involuntarily repatriated from Phnom Penh on July 20.
The visit was scheduled to end on Thursday, VNA said.
“I’ve been told over 20 Montagnards have been visited and they all are fine,” a second UNHCR official in Phnom Penh said.
“There’s nothing to report.