More Than 200 Montagnards Now in Phnom Penh, UN Says

The number of Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh has doubled over the past two months with the U.N. saying Thursday that there are now more than 200 in the capital, but the government’s refugee department again denied knowledge of the group.

Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in an email that the Interior Ministry’s refugee department has still not registered the 219 Montagnard asylum seekers.

Despite the steady increase in Montagnards, an indigenous minority from Vietnam whose members claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution by Hanoi, the refugee department Thursday repeated what it has said for months—that it was not aware of the group’s presence in the capital.

“I don’t know,” said Tan Sovichea, the newly appointed director of the refugee department, when asked about the Montagnards.

He claimed the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had not contacted his department about registering the asylum seekers.

An official at the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), who has been assisting with the Montagnards and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the U.N. has attempted to register each group of asylum seekers as they arrived in Phnom Penh, including two who arrived Thursday morning from Ratanakkiri province.

“UNHCR has asked the government’s refugee department many times to register those people to get asylum for a third country,” he said. “But they refused.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment Thursday, but has called the asylum seekers illegal immigrants and said they would eventually be deported.

Denise Coghlan, head of Jesuit Refugee Service, which is providing assistance to the Montagnards, said it is impossible to determine whether they have legitimate claims until they are heard by the refugee department.

“We really wish the government would register them and then the process to determine whether they are refugees or not can begin.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified an anonymous source as an official with the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees. The source works for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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