A family of Montagnard asylum seekers, including two young children and a 9-month-old baby, has been deported to Vietnam, where the father was reportedly beaten by authorities for attempting to escape.
The fate of the five Christian asylum seekers had been unknown since their arrest in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadav district on Sunday, with officials there refusing to reveal any information about the group’s whereabouts.
But Moeng Sineath, spokesman for Ratanakkiri Provincial Hall, confirmed for the first time yesterday that the group had been deported.
He denied, however, that they were Montagnards.
“They are Vietnamese people who illegally crossed the border into Cambodia to clear land for farming. Therefore, our authorities arrested them and deported them back to Vietnam,” he said.
Villagers in the area who had met with the family, and Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, maintained yesterday that the deportees were ethnic Jarai Montagnards who had fled persecution.
Thy condemned the deportations and said that the family had sought asylum through Cambodia “because they know that the UN is present here … and that Cambodia has signed the Refugee Convention”.
He said the group’s forced return was a “violation of the rights of refugees”.
Thy and a Jarai villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the father was punished by Vietnamese authorities.
“His relatives … said that Vietnamese police questioned him, beat and threatened him for escaping to Cambodia,” the villager said.
The Vietnamese Embassy could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The United Nations, however, strongly condemned the deportations.
“Due process and non-refoulement are fundamental human rights well established in international law, which the local authorities, through this action, have just breached,” Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said by email.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UN’s refugee agency, said the “involuntary return of individuals to a territory where their lives or freedom could be in danger contravenes international law.”
The deportations came just weeks after 13 other Montagnards were granted safe passage to Phnom Penh to process asylum claims. Another three joined them last month.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the action against the young family was “absolutely outrageous”, and called on international donors to take action.
“When the Cambodian government seems determined to violate human rights, donors have a special obligation to step in and demand the abuses stop,” he explained.
Robertson added that the deportations were “yet another kick in the teeth to Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who has naively stated that Cambodia is a ‘credible’ partner to work with on refugee rights issues”.
For 27 Montagnards who remained in hiding in Ratanakkiri last night, conditions were becoming increasingly difficult. Local Jarai villagers said that one of the asylum seekers has developed a “bad fever”.
Despite the deportations and struggles of those still in hiding, Jarai villagers told the Post yesterday that 10 more asylum seekers were preparing to cross the border.