UN Planning New Visit to Ratanakkiri

The UN refugee agency plans to travel to Ratanakkiri province on Wednesday to investigate new reports of Montagnard asylum-seekers hiding in the northeast jungles, officials said Monday.

Long Visalo, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the government granted a proposal sent to the ministry last week by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The UNHCR wanted to go back to Ratanakkiri because they claimed they would find Vietnamese hill tribe members,” he said.

The agency requested to check reports from the local human rights group Adhoc that more than 40 Montagnards were hiding in Ratanakkiri. Last month, 198 asylum-seekers emerged from the jungles into UNHCR protection.

Long Visalo put no time limits on the UNHCR’s operations in the border province.

The UNHCR “can stay there until they finish their work,” he said. “We don’t prohibit them.”

But he repeated the government’s policy of not allowing the UNHCR to set up refugee camps.

Thamrongsak Meechubot, the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh representative, welcomed the government’s decision and said he saw no need for the UNHCR to open an office in Ratanakkiri.

“We feel that the present arrangement is good enough,” he said.

Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung said the Montagnards have “no reason to leave Vietnam,” but said the government’s decision to let the refugee agency into Ratanakkiri was “an issue between Cambodia and the UNHCR.”

Long Visalo also said the government’s 30-day deadline for the UNHCR to resettle Montagnards into a third country was flexible.

“One month is short for them so I said that it’s not a problem,” he told reporters on Monday.

Meechubot said the UNHCR told the government that the one-month deadline for determining the refugee status of the asylum-seekers and finding a third country for them to live was “unrealistic.”

Choam Bunkhorn, Ratanakkiri’s first deputy governor, said Monday that he was not yet informed of the UNHCR’s imminent return to the province, but promised there would be cooperation from local authorities.

“We are just waiting on the directive from the Foreign Ministry,” he said, adding that in the past there was little cooperation between authorities and the UN.

“What [UNHCR] were doing in the past looked like they were trying to hide something from local authorities,” he said. “The media also. They never tell provincial authorities what they are doing. Maybe they do not trust us.”

Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun could not be contacted on Monday.

Asked to comment on reports from local villagers that police reinforcements were sent to areas in which the asylum-seekers emerged last month under UN protection, Choam Bunkhorn said there was “no principle” to send extra police officers. He also said he was unaware of the police ban on reporters traveling and working in districts outside Banlung, but added that the law allowed journalists to travel unhindered.

Two reporters were barred from traveling from Banlung to Bokeo district on Sunday. Long Visalo said on Monday that reporters are not restricted from reporting on the Montagnard asylum-seeker issue, but said he hoped the UNHCR would find the Montagnards first.

“I think reporters should not cover [asylum-seekers] first but allow the [UNHCR] to find them,” he said. “After the UNHCR finds them, then the reporters can ask.”

Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, said on Monday that information has been received from local sources that the total number of Montagnard asylum-seekers in hiding was now 54.

Pen Bonnar said he was ready to provide the UNHCR with the reported locations at which the asylum-seekers can be found.

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