Staff with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were told they would be kidnapped and killed, and were “manhandled” Thursday by Vietnamese authorities when they tried to stop almost 450 hill tribe family members from entering a camp for Montagnard asylum seekers in Mondolkiri province, a source close to the incident said.
“The numbers were overwhelming” the source said, describing how 12 busloads of people claiming to family of the asylum seekers drove into the camp, accompanied by Vietnamese officials who said the Montagnards only wanted to check on their relatives.
Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, confirmed Friday that two foreign and several Cambodian UNHCR workers had been threatened, Reuters reported. “This is very serious and very ugly,” he said.
This latest visit—several others have occurred in recent weeks—has by far been the largest and has escalated tensions between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR, which has been trying to regain control of the repatriation of the more than 1,000 Montagnards under its protection.
“The Cambodians lost control of the situation. This time they have crossed the [line],” the source said.
The US government, which has been a vocal critic of deteriorating repatriation efforts, said in a statement Thursday the “reported aggressive and unruly behavior of these Vietnamese visitors is cause for grave concern,” Reuters reported.
US Ambassador to Cambodia, Kent Wiedemann, said Friday he is working to get the visits by Vietnamese family members stopped completely, calling them “an extreme deviation from the trilateral solution to the refugee problem.”
“This shows very poor judgment at the very least, if not bad faith,” Wiedemann said Friday.
The US government maintains the visits have tainted the voluntary nature of any Montagnard returns to Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and are part of Cambodia and Vietnam’s attempts to get as many asylum seekers back to Vietnam as quickly as possible.
Six Montagnards reportedly left with the convoy Thursday, bringing to just under 130 the number of asylum seekers who have quit camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri for home.
Kessler said the UNHCR was concerned it didn’t get a chance to counsel the six first before they left.
Fifteen others left under the UNHCR-monitored repatriation deal signed in January, before threats, deportations and Vietnam’s refusal to allow the agency into the Central Highlands forced the UNHCR to suspend any further repatriations.
Wiedemann said he spoke to Cambodian officials about the camp visits but was told they did not involve forced deportations.
“This is just an unremarkable visit by relatives. They saw nothing wrong with it,” Wiedemann said.
But Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng on Friday acknowledged that the UNHCR’s staff had been threatened and blamed all sides for not controlling the situation.
“They allowed too many people to come. This is a lack of cooperation between the provincial authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam,” Sar Kheng said, though he said he believed far fewer people actually visited the camp than the 441 reported by local officials.
Sar Kheng also downplayed the severity of the threats against the UNHCR, saying the camp was merely mobbed, and “it may have looked like something else was happening.
“In the future I will ask that this not happen again,” he said.
But similar assurances from the Cambodia government have failed in the past to prevent possible asylum seekers from being deported before they could reach the UNHCR.
In recent weeks nearly 100 Montagnards have been forced back to Vietnam—something UNHCR Phnom Penh chief Nikola Mihajlovic said has been addressed with the government.
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