The number of Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam awaiting processing in Phnom Penh has jumped dramatically, with 67 now stuck in limbo, according to the United Nations.
Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), said that 22 more ethnic Jarai Montagnards from Vietnam’s Central Highlands have arrived in the capital in the past two weeks, having fled alleged religious and political persecution.
But the asylum seekers – some of whom arrived in January – have been left in limbo, with the Interior Ministry’s refugee department apparently refusing to process their claims.
“We have alerted the authorities on these arrivals and received no explanation on the delay in registration,” Tan said yesterday.
She added that UNHCR was unable to provide details about the new asylum seekers.
Khun Sambou, deputy head of the ministry’s General Department of Immigration, declined to comment yesterday.
Other government officials could not be reached.
Since October, well over 100 Christian Montagnards have travelled to Cambodia seeking refuge from alleged abuses.
Dozens have been arrested and deported, and, so far, just 13 have been granted provisional refugee status with the intention of resettling them in a third country.
In late April, 1,000 troops were stationed along the Vietnamese border in Ratanakkiri province to stop further arrivals.
But despite the risks, Rong Nay, executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, said the asylum seekers have no choice but to flee.
“The Vietnamese police make up stories and accuse them [of being] a criminal . . . and arrest them easily,” he said by email.
“The Montagnard Indigenous Peoples are the first occupants, the original peoples, and the rightful owners [of] the land of the Central Highlands. The land is the heart of the Montagnard people. If someone takes their land they will die. Today our land has been stolen and exploited by the government of Vietnam.”
An ethnic Jarai villager in Ratanakkiri, who has been assisting the asylum seekers, said more are waiting to cross.
“They are calling me, asking about the situation here and whether I can help them more or not. I said no, because soldiers are at the border. If I help them and it is successful, it is OK; but if it fails, I will be blamed,” he said.
The helper, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, added that, in addition to the 67 asylum seekers in Phnom Penh, more are still hiding out in the forest in Ratanakkiri.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said continued abuses in Vietnam mean “it’s entirely natural that the number of asylum seekers will continue to rise”.
“If Cambodia doesn’t want the Montagnards to come, then [Prime Minister] Hun Sen needs to go to Hanoi and persuade the leaders there to change the abusive way they are treating the Montagnards.”