UN representatives travelled yesterday to Ratanakkiri province to “assess the situation” of a group of Montagnards who have been seeking shelter in the Kingdom in recent weeks, but officials apparently refused to meet with them.
Four UN representatives from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) arrived in the province yesterday afternoon.
Their visit comes amid mounting criticism over the government’s response to the 13 Christian Montagnards who have been hiding in the forests since fleeing alleged religious persecution in Vietnam.
Chhay Thy, a provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc who met with the UN yesterday, said their attempt to meet with the provincial governor had been rejected.
“They wanted to meet with the governor and the police chief. The governor rejected [the proposal],” he said. “They will try to seek cooperation from the authorities and the government to help the Montagnards.”
Thy added that the UN is “willing to meet the Montagnards, but there is no agreement or cooperation from the authorities or the government yet”.
“They will not meet them if they do not have cooperation,” he said.
Provincial Governor Thong Savon could not be reached yesterday, while provincial police chief Nhuong Koeun said he was unaware of the visit and was occupied with other duties.
Despite calls from the UN to allow the group to pursue refugee claims, Koeun said that, if found, they would be deported.
“In legal terms they are illegal immigrants. We [only] consider them as asylum seekers in cases when they escape from a big war,” he explained.
Wan-Hea Lee, OHCHR country representative, and Vivian Tan, UNHCR regional press officer, confirmed the visit but did not respond to questions about the authorities’ refusal to meet.
While the government is responsible for processing asylum claims, “as always, UNHCR is prepared to provide technical support to the Refugee Department as needed”, Tan said.