Ratanakkiri province – Ethnic minority villagers in areas where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees escorted to safety 198 Montagnard asylum-seekers last month have reported large police deployments and day and night searches for a group of 42 men, women and children who are reportedly still hiding in Ratanakkiri province.
Interviewed over two days on strict condition that neither their names nor their villages be divulged for fear of reprisal, the villagers said that provincial and commune police have set up posts within ethnic minority villages.
Villagers from one area said police have employed local Jarai people with hunting dogs to assist in the 24-hour search for the asylum-seekers while another villager said police ordered ethnic minority members in a separate area to remain confined to their villages.
“Police have barred us from leaving our village. They don’t want us to go out because we might meet asylum-seekers,” the villager said Thursday.
Reports of the intensive police operations come on the heels of information obtained earlier this week by local human rights group Adhoc that an additional 42 Montagnard asylum-seekers fled to Ratanakkiri from Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The UNHCR has requested permission from the Foreign Ministry to return to the province to investigate the reports, but has yet to receive a reply.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Police Chief Yoeung Baloung on Thursday denied the reports that extra police officers have been sent to ethnic minority villages or were searching for the asylum-seekers.
“I do not know [about new asylum seekers],” said Yoeung Baloung, adding that reports of an increased police presence were untrue.
However, Pen Bonnar, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator in Ratanakkiri, said Thursday that he had received information that more police have been deployed at the villages where the UN was operating.
Local minority villagers, sympathetic to the Montagnards, “feel very worried for the asylum-seeker,” he said, but added he had heard no reports of verbal intimidation. “[The villagers] have been very frightened for a long time,” he said.
Fearing arrest for talking out about the security operations, several local minority members said Jarai villagers in one area were now frightened to travel to their jungle plantations for fear of being implicated by police in assisting the asylum-seekers.
“Police investigators have deployed to our village”. They patrol during the day and at night. They send their spies into the jungle with torches at night. I am very frightened,” said one 26-year-old villager.
“Villagers are very scared to go to their farm plantations because the refugees were picked up [by UNHCR] from the plantations and now the authorities are staying there,” he said.
One police official, according to the villager, had also intimidated an older ethnic minority member, entering his jungle hut at night and accusing him of hiding asylum-seekers before demanding names of those who have assisted the Montagnards.
“They know that we fed the refugees last time and now they deploy the police in order to intimidate our villagers from going to help the refugees once again. We really pity those people who are suffering and living in the jungle,” he said.
According to the villagers, the 42 asylum-seekers, including one young child and teenagers, fled from Vietnam’s Pleiku province.
“I want the UNHCR to help them and bring them out of the jungle. They cannot stay longer in the jungle. Those people are young and old, the youngest is one year old and others are 13, 15, 18 and 19 years old,” said the 26-year-old.
“There are no human rights workers in the village. That is why the police dare to do these things,” he added. Local and international human rights groups have said that Cambodian police have taken part in hunting down and deporting Montagnards in both Ratanakkiri and neighboring Mondolkiri province.
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, questioned the legality of such acts on Thursday.
“Even illegal immigrants, I don’t think the government has the right to deport them. They should be sent through the judicial system,” said Sok Sam Oeun, adding that rank and file officers were not familiar with Cambodian lawÑlet alone the UN refugee convention to which Cambodia is a signatory.
Sok Sam Oeun said the issue of forced deportations could be raised with the Ministries of Interior and Justice to determine its legality.
Thamrongsak Meechubot, UNHCR’s Phnom Penh representative, said Thursday he was optimistic that a request sent to the Foreign Ministry to investigate the new claims of 42 more asylum-seekers would be answered soon.
“We have submitted a request to the government suggesting we can go up together,” he said.
“So far we have no negative indications,” he added. UNHCR is currently screening the 198 Montagnards who were transferred from Banlung town to Phnom Penh last month, said Meechubot, adding that the determination process was an involved procedure in order to ensure that the right people receive asylum.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)
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