A team from the United Nations refugee agency traveled to northeast Cambodia Wednesday to meet with 13 ethnic Montagnards seeking asylum in the country after fleeing alleged persecution in Vietnam, according to an agency spokesperson and a member of a local rights group.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Vivian Tan told RFA’s Khmer Service that staff from the agency had traveled to Ratanakiri province, where most of the Christian Montagnards have been hiding in the jungle for nearly a month “to try and meet the group.”
“The plan was simply to talk to them and find out what their needs are,” Tan said, adding that she had not received confirmation about whether the team, which joined a visit with the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, had managed to locate the group.
Most of the Montagnards from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province trekked their way across the border into Ratanakiri province in early November, and have been sleeping in hammocks in the forests without any shelter and surviving on whatever food they can forage.
The Montagnards have told RFA’s Khmer Service they were forced to enter the country illegally to escape repeated threats from Vietnamese authorities, and have been hiding to evade capture from Cambodian authorities, who they believe will force them to return home.
Tan said the UNHCR wants Cambodia to investigate the group’s claims.
“We advocate that if these people wish to seek asylum in Cambodia, the government's Refugee Department should process their asylum claims,” she said.
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar, who rights groups say suffer extreme persecution.
Early in the last decade, thousands in the region staged violent protests against the confiscation of their ancestral lands and religious controls, prompting a brutal crackdown by security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
Representatives of the minority group have said that they are only calling for indigenous land rights and basic human rights in Vietnam, despite attempts by Hanoi to link them to overseas separatist groups.
Chhay Thi, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, confirmed that the UNHCR team had arrived in Ratanakiri on Wednesday evening, and said it had tried to visit with the provincial governor to discuss the Montagnards, but had been refused a meeting.
“The team asked me about the well-being, health, and food [security] of the refugees,” he said, adding that food is being provided to them by local villagers and that they are in decent health, despite some of them suffering from malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease that causes a high fever and chills.
Chhay Thi said the UNHCR team also asked him whether it could meet with the Montagnards.
“I told the team that it is not difficult to meet them, but said we are concerned about their security because we have not received any cooperation from the government or the local authorities,” he said.
“The team wants the U.N. office and foreign embassies [in the capital Phnom Penh] to pressure the government to cooperate with them so that they can locate the refugees and determine their status.”
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung told RFA that the authorities want to provide the Montagnards with food and medication, but have been unable to locate them.
He refused to comment whether the government would deport them if it determines the group’s location.
“We have heard the information [about the Montagnards], but we haven’t been able to find them anywhere,” he said.
“We first have to determine if there is any truth to the reports that they are in Ratanakiri before we can say what we will do when we find them. I believe that the reports … are bogus.”
‘Making up stories’
Phil Robertson, deputy director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that if Kuy Koung wants to believe there are no Montagnards in Ratanakiri “that is fine with us, because that means the Cambodian government won’t be able to find them and send them back to Vietnam.”
Robertson said that the government had refused invitations from the UNHCR and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to join them on a trip to Ratankiri to find the group, which he called “another sad reflection … of Cambodia’s commitment to protect refugees.”
“The Cambodian government thinks that when it signs a U.N. convention, that it can interpret it any way that it wants. That’s not the case,” he said, adding that forcibly returning the 13 to Vietnam would be a violation of Cambodia’s international legal obligations.
Robertson called on the government to allow the UNHCR, working with other groups, to escort the Montagnards to Phnom Penh to conduct refugee status determination, adding that Cambodia has nearly always given in to Vietnam's demands to forcibly return them in the past.
“If there is an impartial refugee screening process that’s not biased by government hostility to the Montagnards, then I would expect these people would be treated as refugees. And if they’re recognized as refugees … there is a very high likelihood that they would be resettled to a third country,” he said.
“The government should play by the rules instead of trying to make up these games … saying that these people aren’t Montagnards or these people aren’t there—they’re just making up stories. It’s really an indication of how the government of Cambodia takes its responsibilities to protect refugees and protect human rights.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.