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UN investigating possible refugee deaths

After 11 more Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam reportedly arrived in Ratanakkiri province late on Sunday evening, the United Nations yesterday said it was looking into unconfirmed reports from local villagers that eight others had been found dead in the province.

According to an ethnic Jarai villager who has been helping the asylum seekers survive in the forest, and who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, the group who arrived over the weekend consists of 10 men and one woman, who say “they were mistreated in Vietnam and escaped”.

The new arrivals brought the number of Montagnards – indigenous peoples from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – known to be hiding in the province to 23.

Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the agency was in “discussions with the government to ensure that the asylum seekers in hiding will be granted safe passage [to process their claims], although the government has not been responsive”.

The government’s handling of previous groups of Montagnard asylum seekers means their status in Cambodia remains uncertain. In recent months, 13 Montagnards have been granted refugee status, 11 others have reached Phnom Penh but have not been allowed to register their claims and dozens more have been deported back to Vietnam without due process.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, yesterday called on Cambodia “to recognise its obligations under the Refugee Convention to protect asylum seekers regardless of their origin, and cease colluding in Hanoi’s dirty work of repressing the Montagnards”.

Meanwhile, rumours have swirled in Ratanakkiri province after a local fisherman claimed he had seen the corpses of eight Montagnards floating down the Sesan River on March 31.

According to the Jarai villager, the fisherman, who he named only as Yorn, reported the sighting to the local community last week, and yesterday he and three other villagers went to the scene of the alleged discovery to investigate.

There, he said, they were met with a “bad smell”, and found a man’s corpse partially buried in the forest near the river.

While it was impossible for the group to verify the identity of the man, the site of the discovery – next to the Vietnamese border, where dozens of Montagnards have crossed in recent months in a bid to flee alleged religious persecution – led them to believe he was an asylum seeker.

“We saw a male dead body; the other seven dead bodies had disappeared … they might be rotting in the water already,” the villager said.

The United Nations and local rights group Adhoc said they were investigating the allegations of fatalities.

Both the UN human rights agency and the UN refugee agency confirmed receiving reports of the deaths. Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the refugees office, said the agency had been unable to verify the reports but were “checking with whatever sources are available”.

Chhay Thy, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator, said he was also looking into the claims.

Lee, of the UN human rights agency, urged the authorities to take action.

“It is the role of the police to investigate such occurrences, which I hope [they] will do … as soon as possible,” she said.

But police in the province said yesterday they were not aware of the reports, while Sev Doeurn, chief of Phe village, said he had heard that a Vietnamese man drowned in the river, but claimed his body had already been repatriated.

HRW’s Robertson said it was crucial that the government “conduct an impartial investigation and get to the bottom of these very worrisome reports and immediately publicise what they find”.

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