Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees returned to Ratanakkiri province on Wednesday to investigate new reports of Montagnard asylum-seekers hiding in the province.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Monday that the UN would be allowed return to Ratanakkiri from where 198 Montagnard asylum-seekers were escorted to safety last month to look into reports received by local rights group Adhoc.
Chung Ravuth, UNHCR protection and field assistant, who arrived in Banlung town on Wednesday, said the first step in the latest operation is to meet with Ratanakkiri provincial officials.
A meeting has been scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Chung Ravuth said.
Contacted on Wednesday evening, Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said that he was aware of UNHCR’s return to the province but that he may not be able to meet with the organization’s representatives as he was scheduled to leave the country on Thursday.
“I did not meet [UNHCR] yet. They did not phone me. Maybe they tried to contact me but I may not meet them [Thursday] because I will go abroad,” Kham Khoeun said. He did not mention where he was going.
“Maybe if they do not meet me, they will meet another [official],” he said.
Ratanakkiri First Deputy Governor Choam Bunkhorn said on Wednesday that he was recently informed of UNHCR’s return.
“It is not necessary [to meet]. It is just a courtesy call because they came with the permission of superiors. The local authorities are ready to cooperate,” he said.
Pen Bonnar, Adhoc provincial coordinator, said on Wednesday night that the UN was scheduled to meet today with Second Deputy Governor Muong Poy.
Adhoc, which has been the key conduit of information regarding the locations of the asylum-seekers, will take part in the UNHCR operation, Pen Bonnar said.
“We are local human rights workers. We will go with UNHCR to observe the refugees,” he said.
Though Adhoc reported on Monday that it had received information that some 54 asylum-seekers were in hiding, that figure might need to be revised upward, Pen Bonnar said.
“I have heard that there are more than 90, but it is not clear yet,” he said.
The continuing influx of asylum-seekers from Vietnam has reportedly prompted a large police deployment with day and night patrols in the ethnic minority areas where the UNHCR collected the 198 asylum-seekers last month. A noticeably increased police presence was evident on the road between Banlung town and the districts of Andong Meas, Bokeo and O’Yadaw on Wednesday.
Villagers interviewed last week in Ratanakkiri said police had harassed villagers suspected of assisting the Montagnards, including several families ordered to remain within the confines of their villages.
Pen Bonnar also said Wednesday that eight villagers representing some 160 families have lodged a complaint with Adhoc, claiming that local authorities had ordered them to thumbprint a document stating they would no longer help asylum-seekers.
Declining to sign the statement, the villagers are now fearful of repercussions, Pen Bonnar said.
“I sent this complaint to the governor [Kham Khoeun] this morning seeking intervention,” he said.
Several days of torrential rain in Ratanakkiri have now made the road from Banlung to Andong Meas, Bokeo and O’Yadaw districts almost impossible to travel in vehicles. Several heavy-goods trucks blocked the route in a number of severely drain-damaged sections between Bokeo and Banlung.
Unlike last month’s UNHCR collection of asylum-seekers in remote areas, the forthcoming operation is likely to be several times more exacting on the vehicles needed to take those who emerge from the jungle to Banlung town.
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