A Montagnard family seeking asylum is feared deported after being taken by police from a United Nations shelter in Phnom Penh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
A representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that two families were taken from the UN's Site Four on January 9. A mother and child were later returned, but the whereabouts of the mother, father and two children of another family remains unknown.
The UN source could not confirm the family's whereabouts.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has condemned the Cambodian government's alleged actions as a violation of Cambodia's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
"This is a flagrant violation of not only the Refugee Convention but the Convention Against Torture," said HRW Asia director Brad Adams. "The Cambodian Government should have granted the UNHCR access to these asylum seekers - especially at a time when new information is coming out of the very real possibility that returnees face torture and imprisonment."
On January 10, Human Rights Watch released a 25-page report detailing large scale arrests and the torture of Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam over the past four years (see story page 8).
Both Montagnard families taken from the UN shelter are believed to be from Ea H'Leo district, Dak Lak province, Vietnam, an area under tight police control.
Ksor Choi, the man taken from the UN shelter, is the brother of Ksor Phen, a Montagnard political prisoner currently serving a seven year sentence in Vietnam for his involvement in February 2001 demonstrations.
Choi and his family are believed to have fled Vietnam after he was detained and beaten in November 2004. It is unclear when they arrived in Phnom Penh, but they had been staying in a Phnom Penh guesthouse before approaching the UNHCR on Sunday, according to Human Rights Watch.
Khieu Sopheak, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, could not be contacted for comment on the alleged deportations.
Human Rights Watch said the incident marks a turning point in the relationship between the Cambodian government and UNHCR.
"This is the first time, to our knowledge, that Montagnard asylum seekers who had appeared at the UNHCR offices in Phnom Penh for assistance - who UNHCR knew about - disappeared right under their noses, while in the custody of the Ministry of Interior," said a Human Rights Watch researcher who has followed the case closely.
News of the family's disappearance comes a day after the spokesman for the Minister of Interior said that some Vietnamese Montagnards crossing into Cambodia are "international terrorists", while others might be using the border regions as a base for an insurgency against their government.
Khieu Sopheak told the Post on January 12 that the government has evidence of armed Montagnards entering the mountainous provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri.
"Of the thousands of people [coming over the border], they are not all refugees," said Sopheak. "Sometimes they are international terrorists. Sometimes they are separatists.
"The Cambodian government will not allow those groups to use this territory as the strong base to fight back against those governments," he said.
Human Rights Watch condemned Sopheak's comments. In a written statement, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said Montagnard activists in Vietnam and abroad have consistently said that their movement is a non-violent one that seeks to peacefully press for religious freedom and return of ancestral lands.
"There is no evidence that the Montagnards pushing for land rights in Vietnam are armed, nor any of the refugees who have crossed into Cambodia," said Adams. "This is an outrageous attempt to use the memory of September 11 as an excuse to violate human rights."
Adams said that if the Cambodian government were serious about preventing refugees massed at the border from forming into separatist forces, it would allow orderly and systematic processing of their asylum claims. Such persons could then be transferred to other locations pending resettlement.
Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc, said that while his organisation has found no evidence of refugees being armed, he could not rule out the possibility of militant Montangard groups forming in the future.
"They are just afraid, and they escape from the oppression and persecution in Vietnam," Saray said. "They try to find a safe place on this side. Perhaps if the situation becomes tougher and tougher, perhaps they will use some violence. But according to our knowledge, those people have not used violence."
A violent crackdown on protests in April 2004 sent a fresh wave of Montagnard refugees across the border into Cambodia. Currently the UNHCR is sheltering 770 refugees in Phnom Penh.
Earlier this month, National Police Chief Hok Lundy increased border security in efforts to prevent Montagnards from entering the country.
Tham Meechubat, country director of UNHCR, refused to comment on Khieu Sopheak's claims, but said that the UNHCR had submitted a written request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to collect 51 Montagnards believed to hiding in the jungle of Ratanakiri.