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Montagnard men sit next to a camp kitchen in a forest in Ratanakkiri province
Montagnard men sit next to a camp kitchen in a forest in Ratanakkiri province last month after fleeing persecution in Vietnam. PHOTO SUPPLIED

UN mulling Ratanakkiri visit

Weeks after they arrived in the Kingdom and amid mounting criticism over the government’s response, 13 Montagnards who have fled alleged religious persecution in Vietnam may today be visited by officials from the United Nations.

The 13 Christian Montagnards, indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, have been hiding in the forests of Ratanakkiri province in recent weeks, refusing to reveal themselves to authorities for fear of deportation.

But while the asylum seekers have been visited by local villagers, rights groups and journalists, the government has until now seemed reluctant to allow the UN to intervene.

Vivian Tan, press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok, said UNHCR asked, this week and last, “to be part of a visit there but have yet to hear back from the authorities”.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that this is because the government doesn’t believe the Montagnards exist.

“It’s not true, so how can we respond to the [UN’s] request?” he said. “If it is true [that Montagnards are in Ratanakkiri], they will show up.”

But last night, Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that “a trip may take place” today.

Lee declined to confirm if the visit had been authorised by the government, saying only that OHCHR’s mandate “extends to all human rights in all parts of the country” and it had “proposed a joint mission to the province with the relevant Government officials”.

News of the potential visit came as UNHCR said in a statement last night that it is “deeply concerned” at reports that police are seeking the deportation of the group, arguing that this “would represent a violation of international legal obligations”.

It said that both UNHCR and OHCHR had written to the government “urging that the 13 individuals be allowed to pursue refugee claims”.

In a separate statement, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the Montagnards “should be allowed to travel to Phnom Penh unhindered so that they can tell their accounts of religious and political persecution to officials tasked with assessing refugee claims”, and that such assessments “must be fair and impartial”.

Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the deportation of the group would be a “gross abuse of human rights” and that police had been searching the area throughout the day yesterday and would resume the search today.

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