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A van transporting asylum-seeking Montagnards arrives at the General Department of Immigration in Phnom Penh in December after travelling from Ratanakkiri province.
FILE: A van transporting asylum-seeking Montagnards arrives at the General Department of Immigration in Phnom Penh in December after travelling from Ratanakkiri province. Hong Menea

Montagnards await fate

Forty Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam’s Central Highlands are waiting for the Interior Ministry’s refugee department to register their claims in Phnom Penh after more arrived in the capital in recent days, the UN refugee agency has said.

Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), yesterday said that “more Montagnards have arrived in Phnom Penh … There are now 40 of them waiting to be registered by the Refugee Department.”

Since October, dozens of ethnic Jarai Montagnards have fled to Cambodia citing religious persecution.

Cambodian police deported 45 Montagnards in February, while 13 have so far been granted provisional refugee status after they were escorted to Phnom Penh by UN officials in December.

At least 23 others are thought to be hiding in the forests of the remote northeast in Ratanakkiri province, where armed security forces and sniffer dogs have been mobilised to track them down.

Kerm Sarin, head of the government’s refugee department, could not be reached yesterday for comment.

An ethnic Jarai villager in Ratanakkiri who has been assisting the asylum seekers there said the new arrivals had not entered the country via the usual cross-border routes out of fear after about 1,000 troops were dispatched to the area on Thursday to combat “illegal immigration”.

“They did not come to Ratanakkiri because of the soldiers deploying all along the border,” he said. “The deploying of these troops was aimed at the Montagnards.”

Some of the 23 Montagnards still in hiding in the province have been there for four months and are suffering from worsening conditions and a lack of food, he added.

In late March, the UN refugee agency met Cambodian and Vietnamese officials to “discuss solutions” to the influx of Montagnards, including repatriation.

Wan-Hea Lee, representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that her office was continuing to urge the government to allow the remaining asylum seekers safe passage to register their claims without fear of deportation.

“Unfortunately, dialogue with the government on these issues has not been possible in recent months. Any viable long-term solution, however, would need to be pursued on the other side of the border where developments are apparently causing persons to seek asylum.’’

The continued influx of asylum seekers comes as Cambodia is preparing to allow a small number of refugees held in an Australian-funded detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru to resettle here under an agreement signed last September.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “Instead of proving to the world that it welcomes refugees, Cambodia is busy proving the opposite by hunting them down in the jungles and locking them out of the interview rooms in Phnom Penh.”

“Hun Sen and his government are right out of a modern day Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde show, where the kindly doctor happily treats refugees from Nauru whose pockets are stuffed with Australian assistance cash, while Hyde chases down and forces back impoverished Montagnards fleeing Vietnam government persecution.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH

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