A Cambodian national who was arrested last week while helping 36 Montagnard asylum seekers reach the capital was himself deported alongside the group to Vietnam, where he was detained and interrogated for more than five days, he told the Post yesterday.
The disclosure came as Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak revealed that 10 other asylum seekers who have arrived in Phnom Penh in recent weeks, and have yet to have their claims registered or assessed, have been determined to be illegal immigrants.
Dy Heun, an ethnic Jarai villager, said he was arrested in the early hours of Thursday morning and sent immediately across the border into Vietnam. He was returned to Cambodia on Tuesday afternoon.
Heun told the Post that he was driving towards Phnom Penh with 36 Montagnards who had fled Vietnam when their vans were stopped by about 30 Vietnamese and Cambodian police officers.
Heun said the group was ordered out of the vehicles, and told to take off their jackets so that police could check for explosives. Their phones and wallets were seized.
Without being asked any questions, he was pushed into a waiting vehicle and driven away, he said. “I didn’t know where they were heading since it was night. At dawn, I just realised that they had taken us to Vietnam, and the vehicle kept running until it reached Gai Lai province.”
In Gai Lai, Heun said he was questioned by Vietnamese authorities. His wallet was returned to him, but $200 was missing, he said. Two mobile phones confiscated by police in Cambodia were not returned.
Heun claims that he was then taken to Ho Chi Minh City, where he was subjected to further interrogation.
“They fed me as usual and they did not torture me. They just interrogated me twice a day, repeating the questions, ‘Where do I come from?’, ‘Why was I in the vehicle?’” he said.
“I was so scared, since I was alone in their country, but I didn’t know how I could escape. I told the Vietnamese authorities that they can kill me if they want to, I know nothing.”
On Tuesday, Heun said, he was brought to the Bavet border checkpoint, where Cambodian police gave him a phone to call his family and the travel fare to get to Phnom Penh.
Despite the ordeal, he vowed yesterday to continue helping asylum seekers. “If asked, I will help them,” he said. “If they did not face difficulty in Vietnam, they would not run to Cambodia, leaving their homes there.”
David Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said that moves by Cambodia “to punish its own nationals or expose them to interrogation under detention by feared persecutors of another country for rendering such assistance raises further profound concerns” about the dangers facing refugees here.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said OHCHR would “look into the circumstances of his arrest, deportation and return in due course”.
But authorities have maintained that only the Montagnards were deported, denying any knowledge of Heun’s arrest.
While the 36 asylum seekers remain in Vietnam, 13 others have been officially granted refugee status, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
Despite comments earlier this week from government officials that the 13 would be allowed to remain in Cambodia, Sopheak said yesterday that third countries were still being sought.
“Offering refugee status to the 13 refugees does not mean giving a magnet to attract more to people to cross the border to dig cassava, or log [wood],” he said.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees “is contacting the countries that have received previous refugees, but the ministry has yet to get a reply”.
According to Sopheak, 10 other asylum seekers have been determined as illegal immigrants, despite not yet being assessed. If they are “real Montagnards we get the information from the UN, like with the 13.… The UN has its own network, they know everything”, he said. “If they were Montagnards, we would accept them immediately … [but] UNHCR knew they were not.”
UNHCR did not respond to requests for comment in time for print.
Courtney Woods, assistant public affairs officer at the US Embassy, denied reports that the government had contacted the embassy about resettling the 13. But, Woods said, the US remains “deeply concerned” about the protection of asylum seekers and migrants.
In a statement last night, Amnesty International called on authorities to “immediately refrain from further violations of the principle of non-refoulement” and for the Vietnamese government to “refrain from retaliations against those refouled”.