Thirteen Montagnard asylum seekers who arrived in Phnom Penh in December after weeks spent in hiding in Ratanakkiri province have been recommended for refugee status by immigration officials.
Mom Sophanarith, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, said on Tuesday that the 13 have met all the conditions to be eligible for refugee status but still need to be officially recognized.
“These 13 Montagnards have come and requested [refugee status] since last year, and we have learned that their request is true, unlike those [illegal Vietnamese immigrants] who come to dig cassava or for logging,” he said.
The group of 12 men and one woman, who arrived in Cambodia in October, claim to have fled religious persecution in Vietnam, where the northern minority hill tribes have been subjected to police raids, arrests, beatings and forced renunciations of their Christian faith.
Ten more Montagnards have also reached Phnom Penh in recent weeks, where they are awaiting registration.
Sophanarith confirmed that their requests for asylum are not yet being processed.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached on Tuesday. But he told the Post last month that even if the Montagnards are recognised as refugees, if they are rejected from third countries, they will be deported back to the very place they fled.
Dozens more Montagnards have been deported back to Vietnam in recent weeks, where they claim to have been interrogated and beaten by authorities, and put under house arrest.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, a group of 36 was detained and deported while attempting to reach the capital. An ethnic Jarai villager who was assisting them was also reportedly arrested and has not been seen since.
Authorities have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.