The latest Montagnard asylum seekers to arrive in Cambodia have bypassed the northeastern province where 14 others are currently in hiding and headed straight to the capital to meet with UN officials yesterday, who referred them to the government’s Refugee Department.
The three Christian Montagnards, a woman and two men all in their early 20s, travelled from Vietnam’s Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces and crossed through Bavet International Border last Tuesday before heading onwards to Phnom Penh, according to an ethnic minority Jarai villager and local rights group Adhoc.
“The three said they are suppressed by the Vietnamese government for their Christian beliefs. They do not want to give [their faith] up, so they fled to Phnom Penh,” said the villager, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The villager, who met with the group on Saturday, said the dangerous journey was negotiated through a network of supporters in Vietnam, Cambodia and the US. The assistance, he said, was the difference between potential asylum and immediate deportation.
“They do not know the way. And if they go other ways, they may have problems,” he said.
After spending the weekend in Phnom Penh, the three Montagnards, indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, made contact yesterday with the United Nations.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the recent arrivals were referred to the Refugee Department.
“We are working with our partners on their accommodation,” she added.
Sok Phal, director general of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration Department, could not be reached yesterday, while the department’s Kem Sarith said he was not aware of the group.
The three Montagnards will join 13 others who were granted safe passage to Phnom Penh in December to apply for asylum after spending five weeks in hiding in Ratanakkiri province.
Fourteen others, including two young children and a baby, who arrived this month remain hidden in the northeastern province’s vast woodland.
Chhay Thy, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator, said that harsh conditions in the forests have driven asylum seekers to travel straight to the capital.
“Montagnards have changed direction from hiding in Ratanakkiri [to await assistance] to going to Phnom Penh by themselves, because hiding in the jungle is damn difficult in the cool season and with the authorities hunting [them] on the grounds that the Montagnards are illegal immigrants,” he said.
The Jarai villager said dozens more were ready to make the journey.
“The three said there are between 30 and 40 more living near the border who want to cross,” he said.
Over the weekend, a group of Montagnards were deported by border police in Ratanakkiri. Officials claimed they were not seeking asylum.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY