Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is scheduled to return today to areas near the Vietnam border to investigate reports that Montagnard asylum-seekers are hiding in the vicinity.
Provincial officials approved the UNHCR’s operation on Thursday.
UNHCR departed Ratanakkiri last month after escorting 198 Montagnards, who had fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands, out of the jungle.
But the organization returned to the provincial capital of Banlung on Wednesday to investigate reports that somewhere between 54 and 90 asylum-seekers may be in the province seeking UN protection.
Provincial officials “agreed with what we requested,” Chung Ravuth, UNHCR protection and field assistant, said after a meeting on Thursday with provincial authorities. Reporters who were allowed to report on similar meetings last month were refused entry on Thursday.
“They will assign local authorities to cooperate with UNHCR and representatives of the provincial and Interior Ministry police will go to the site to see whether there are refugees as claimed or not,” he said.
If asylum-seekers are found, they first would be brought to Banlung and then transported to a reception center in Phnom Penh where almost 300 other Montagnards are undergoing UNHCR’s asylum screening process, Chung Ravuth added. Pen Bonnar, coordinator for human rights NGO Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said after the meeting that a compromise was reached with provincial authorities, wherein information regarding the asylum-seekers’ whereabouts would be shared with provincial officials.
“[Authorities] demanded us to cooperate and share information about the refugees and we agreed to do so. What we are doing is not to hide from authorities and we do not want to work alone. We are agreed to share information,” he said.
Amid ongoing reports that Cambodian police and border soldiers have been actively hunting down and deporting Montagnards to Vietnam, local ethnic minority villagers have steered clear of official circles. Instead, they have passed information on the health, living conditions and locations of the asylum seekers to Adhoc.
Several ethnic minority sources reported last week that police reinforcements have been deployed to villages in the vicinity of where the 198 asylum-seekers emerged from the jungle in late July.
A complaint was also lodged this week with Adhoc claiming police had ordered villagers to thumbprint statements saying they would no longer assist Montagnards hiding in the jungle. The villagers refused to do so and are now worried about possible repercussions, Pen Bonnar said on Wednesday.
Ratanakkiri Second Deputy Governor Muong Poy confirmed on Thursday that additional police were deployed to ethnic minority villages, but only to “maintain” security and not to hunt down asylum-seekers or harass local minority villagers.
“Authorities went there just to take care of security in those areas and along the border. We do not have enough troops to seal the border. But Vietnam had so many and still cannot seal the border,” he said.
Police based there “are not to send [asylum seekers] back but to maintain the security along the border,” he added.
Muong Poy also said that no action would be taken against villagers suspected of assisting the asylum-seekers. He blamed the most recent Montagnard influx on ethnic Jarai communities in the province.
“The network of local Jarai people persuaded [asylum-seekers] to come. Maybe it will not finish because there is a relationship between the Khmer Jarai and the Vietnamese Jarai. But we are looking for a way to finish it,” he added.
“If Jarai people are not allowed to be involved then [asylum-seekers] might not come to Cambodia again,” he said, adding “We do not have any measure [to arrest Jarai villagers]. But we must look into the mater with responsibility.”
Despite a ban imposed over the weekend on reporters traveling and working in the districts of Andong Meas, Bokeo and O’Yadaw districtÑwhere asylum-seekers emerged last month, Ratanakkiri’s newly-appointed Third Deputy Governor Chey Sayoeun said Thursday that journalists would not be prevented from reporting on the latest UNHCR operation.
“The Ministry of Interior said that there is no ban. It is the journalist’s right to cover the information,” he said.
On Thursday evening, UNHCR officials planned for the collection of the asylum-seekers from their remote and difficult-to-access hideouts.
Ratanakkiri has been battered by days of constant torrential rain. Roads have turned to treacherous mud rivers almost impassable for all but the smallest motorcycles and sturdiest four-wheel drive vehicles.
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