Four Montagnard asylum seekers who have been hiding in Ratanakkiri province for more than two weeks arrived in Phnom Penh yesterday, where they met with United Nations officials and were referred to the government’s Refugee Department.
The quartet, who crossed the border from Vietnam on January 17 to flee alleged religious persecution, has joined 16 other ethnic Jarai Montagnards who are currently processing asylum claims in the capital with the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Department.
A 2009 subdecree granted the government sole responsibility for determining refugee status.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, confirmed last night that UNHCR officials had met with the group, and were “referring them to the Refugee Department for registration and processing”.
Interior Ministry officials could not be reached yesterday.
A Jarai villager, who had been providing the asylum seekers with food, water and medical supplies, said the four men had decided to travel to Phnom Penh because they “were afraid of living in the forest for too long, where police were hunting for them every day”.
The men had arrived in Cambodia on the same day as a family of Montagnards – a mother, father and their two young children and 9-month-old baby – were arrested and deported back to Vietnam on February 1.
A relative of the family said on Sunday that, one week later, the father was still being held and tortured by the police, while the mother was effectively under house arrest.
Twenty-three other Montagnards remained in hiding in the province last night, but were still being sought by police.
“The others in the forest are safe for now. They are still OK,” the Jarai villager said.
Chhay Thy, a provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc who has received physical and legal threats over his work with the asylum seekers, said he was concerned for his safety.
“I am finding it difficult now and I don’t know what to do.”
In a statement this week, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said the government was putting the asylum seekers’ “lives and well-being at risk by forcing back those it arrests, and putting those who are forced into hiding at risk of starvation, disease, and exposure”.