The UN revealed yesterday that a mission to Ratanakkiri province aimed at helping dozens of Montagnard asylum seekers in hiding there is being blocked by local authorities, who are not allowing them to travel in the area unless it is to leave.
The mission coincides with reports that six more Montagnards – an indigenous group from Vietnam’s central highlands – have fled to Cambodia, bringing the total number of asylum seekers in hiding in the Kingdom to 38.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, confirmed that a group of OHCHR officials travelled to the province on Sunday.
“We are gathering facts on all the persons reportedly in Ratanakkiri seeking asylum, including this new group,” she said. “An OHCHR mission currently in Ratanakkiri is blocked by the provincial police from travelling in the province, except to leave.”
Last year, the UN was repeatedly blocked by provincial officials in its attempts to help an earlier group of 13 Montagnards. In December, the group was eventually granted safe passage to Phnom Penh to process their asylum claims.
Since then, seven others have joined them.
Multiple provincial and central government officials would not accept responsibility yesterday for the UN blockade.
Chea Buthoeun, Ratanakkiri deputy police chief, confirmed that the UN had asked for cooperation but hung up the phone before further questions could be asked, while Provincial Hall spokesman Moeung Sineath said he had not been contacted by the UN or the police about requests for cooperation.
General Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration Department, said he was not aware of the trip.
Earlier this month, the Interior Ministry warned that the Montagnards could be deported even if recognised as refugees.
But despite this, the number of Montagnards crossing the border continued to grow this week, with reports from local villagers yesterday that six more have fled to Cambodia.
According to an ethnic Jarai villager, one of the asylum seekers swam across the Sesan River, while the other five “spent four days making their way here by foot”.
OHCHR yesterday reiterated “its concern for the well-being of those persons reportedly seeking asylum” and called on “authorities at all levels to cooperate in bringing them to safety”.