A UN delegation met with Ratanakkiri province’s deputy police chief yesterday afternoon to discuss the fate of 13 Montagnard asylum seekers who have been hiding in the province in recent weeks. The provincial administration, however, has continued to call for the group’s deportation.
Deputy police chief Chea Bun Thoeurn told the Post last night that he met for about 20 minutes with two of the UN representatives.
He said that during the meeting, the delegation asked the authorities to cooperate with the United Nations. But, he said, he could not agree without authorisation from the provincial governor or the Interior Ministry.
The 13 Christian Montagnards, indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, have been hiding in the forests over the past month after fleeing alleged religious persecution in Vietnam.
Representatives of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) arrived on Wednesday for a three-day visit to assess the situation.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak and Provincial Governor Thong Savon could not be reached for comment.
But Ming Sineath, information officer at Ratanakkiri provincial hall, said that Savon had declined a meeting with the delegation and was still calling for the group’s deportation.
“The provincial governor told them that he is busy with many tasks, so he cannot meet,” he said.
According to Sineath, following an investigation by provincial authorities, the governor had concluded that “no Montagnards came into Ratanakkiri province”. As “illegal immigrants”, he said, the group will be deported if found.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said such “pre-emptive denials … raise very serious concerns that there are orders from the top to send these people back to Vietnam, no matter what”.
While the meeting was under way yesterday, the other half of the delegation went to find out more information about the Montagnards.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator at local rights group Adhoc, said two officers travelled with him to Seda commune, where they heard police were searching for the group, but gained little from the trip.
Wan-Hea Lee, OHCHR country representative, did not respond to questions about whether, without authorisation, the delegation would attempt to meet the Montagnards, saying only that the UN wanted to obtain “the assurance of safety” from authorities. This, she said, is “a prerequisite for any person coming out of hiding and seeking asylum”.
“The present trip has helped to bridge the gap between the local and national levels, and we will continue to try to obtain such assurance at both,” she added.
While the UN looks to find a solution for the group, an ethnic Jarai villager who has been helping the Montagnards by providing them with food and medicine said yesterday that eight of the 13 have fallen ill.
“When one is better, another one starts to fall ill. Now a 40-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman have got malaria,” said the villager, who asked not to be named.
Lee said that the “element of illnesses adds to the need to establish the facts as quickly as possible”.