Vietnamese Montagnards Leave Jungle to Get UN Help

Montagnard girl Photo: Ratha Visal © ; 2004 RFA

PHNOM PENH — ; Forty-four Vietnamese Montagnards have left the Cambodian jungles to seek help from U.N. refugee officials, but up to five times that number are believed to be hiding still in Cambodia's densely forested border.

All 44 are now in the hands of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province while their asylum claims are checked, a UNHCR spokesman said.

Pen Bunna of Cambodian human rights group Adhoc said he believed between 175 and 250 Montagnards might still be hiding out in the dense jungle. "They lack food and were suffering from various illnesses," he told Agence France-Presse.

He said the UNHCR and Adhoc were trying to gain access to around another 130 asylum-seekers still sheltering in the malaria-infested area, according to locals who have been secretly assisting them.

The Montagnards, who are mostly Christian, fled a bloody crackdown by Vietnamese authorities after April protests in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

The Montagnards were demanding the return of ancestral lands and an end to religious persecution.

Cambodia refused to acknowledge the presence of Montagnards in the country for months. It has now permitted UNHCR officials access to them to provide emergency aid.

Human rights workers put the toll of April's deadly demonstrations at 10, but Hanoi said only two people died. They followed similar protests in February 2001, which prompted more than 1,000 Montagnards to flee to Cambodia.

Cambodian border authorities tightened security after the latest unrest. The government at first insisted they would be treated as illegal immigrants but last month conceded some might be genuine refugees.


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