IN a Phnom Penh clinic a young woman, a Montagnard from the Central Highlands in
Vietnam, lies on a bed, emaciated, jaundiced and suffering from cerebral malaria.
Ma Utt is one of the lucky ones who made it to the capital and adequate health care
after fleeing from Vietnam and making an arduous trek through the jungle. Others
who have not made it to the city continue to hide from police in deep forests, fearing
that they will be caught and deported back to Vietnam.
Utt struggled to reach Phnom Penh because since March 2002 the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has maintained a policy that it will screen only
those Montagnard asylum seekers who can make their way from northeastern Cambodia
to their Phnom Penh office.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Cambodia is a party, the Kingdom is obliged
to respect the rights of asylum.
But the Ministry of Interior (MoI) says the people coming from the border are legally
not refugees. MoI accuses UNHCR of interfering with and breaking Cambodian law.
"UNHCR has been illegally recruiting and trafficking people," said MoI
spokesman Khieu Sopheak in September. "It was the multilateral decision of the
UNHCR to bring these people into Phnom Penh. Without the knowledge or support of
the authorities in Cambodia, UNHCR has violated the sovereign law of the Cambodian
Sopheak said the government must determine if "these people are true refugees
or if they are economic refugees, people who want to go to a western country-like
the boat people".
Utt, for her part, says she fled her home out of fear.
"My older brother had been helping others in hiding by getting food to them,"
Utt said. "The [Vietnamese] authorities found out and we feared arrest. We were
afraid. We ran."
Utt, 20, was admitted to hospital about a week ago under the care of UNHCR. She was
in the forest for two months and had virtually nothing to eat. An intravenous drip
feeds into her right hand.
Those who do not reach the city endure hunger, disease and fear in the forests, subsisting
on bamboo shoots and wild potatoes.
Ethnic minorities in Vietnam's Central Highlands continue to endure religious persecution,
according to a US-based organization, the Montagnard Foundation, and rights workers.
They say dozens-if not hundreds-of Montagnards have fled from their villages and
gone into hiding in Vietnam to escape the harsh repression, said one rights worker,
who declined to be named, and that the vast majority are unable to cross to Cambodia
and receive international protection.
To stem the influx of Montagnards, in March 2003 the Cambodian government doubled
the number of guards that patrol the border between Cambodia and Vietnam from 300
This year "hundreds" of Montagnards have been caught and forcibly repatriated
to Vietnam, rights workers said.
Communication with the outside world is heavily restricted, according to Utt, who
says one of her brothers was arrested for possessing a cell phone he used to call
relatives in the US.
Utt left her ethnic Jarai village on July 20, leaving behind her parents and five
other siblings. A group of them, numbering about 18, fled, she said, joining a larger
group of 61. One of Utt's brothers is still somewhere in the forest. She thinks he
has not been arrested, but does not know for sure.
They crossed a river at night, which took them over the border into northeastern
Cambodia. It was very dark and raining hard. They had no boat. For those who could
not swim, there was a rope to hold on to.
"I almost died. The water was very high and I was very afraid," she said.
"The men could cross [more easily] but it was very difficult for us women. I
was pulled across by the others with the rope."
In the last six months 23 Montagnards have made it to Phnom Penh, arriving in ones
and twos. At a UNHCR safe house interviews are conducted and the information is then
forwarded to the US Embassy. In 2001-2 more than 900 Montagnards were screened by
the US government and most of those are now in the US.
Montagnards who try to cross the border are called "illegal migrants" in
Vietnam. They are often arrested, detained, beaten and imprisoned for illegal migration
from three to ten years, according to rights workers. Last week, another four were
sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 13 years for their participation in a demonstration
UNHCR's continuing inability to secure authorization from the government of Cambodia
to operate outside Phnom Penh poses serous obstacles to its ability to fulfill its
protection mandate, the human rights workers said.
MP Son Chhay says UNHCR needs to push more to improve the situation. He says it is
an institution to help refugees, not to be diplomats.
For Ma Utt, the future is unclear.
"I do not know when I will see my parents again," she said. "And I
am very worried for the others left behind in the forest."
The UNHCR could not be reached for comment.