Five Christian Montagnard asylum seekers, including two children and an infant, were arrested and detained yesterday after police and soldiers raided the forest in Ratanakkiri province where they have been hiding for the past two weeks.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said the Montagnards – a mother and father, their two young sons, and 9-month-old daughter – were arrested at about 4:30pm in O’Yadav district.
“Police and soldiers held and handcuffed the mother and father in the forest and transported them on two trucks along the road adjacent to the Vietnamese border,” Thy said.
Four men the family was in hiding with managed to escape, according to ethnic Jarai villagers in the area. Police were still searching for them yesterday evening, and one of the two trucks was parked nearby ready for their arrest, the villagers said.
The Montagnards, or Degar, are indigenous peoples from Vietnam’s central highlands. Dozens have fled to Cambodia in recent months, citing persecution.
A Jarai villager, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the father called him from police custody.
“He called me for help because he was arrested. I didn’t know what to do because I was far away,” the villager said. “If they are sent back to Vietnam, things will be difficult. It is not good.”
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), also condemned the arrests.
“We are very concerned about them and about the situation of all the Montagnards in hiding. We continue to try to liaise with the Ministry of Interior to address these issues,” she said.
Lee added that the “delays in dealing with the situation, even when the law is very clear in this case, highlight once again major governance problems in Cambodia and why rule-based reform to guarantee due process is so important”.
The UN refugee agency did not respond to requests for comment.
Twenty-seven Montagnards remained in hiding in the province yesterday evening. Sixteen others are currently in Phnom Penh applying for asylum.
Thy, of Adhoc, said deporting any of the Montagnards before allowing them to apply for asylum would violate the 1951 Refugee Convention.
“Sending them back immediately without any reason is a grave human rights abuse,” he went on to say.
Multiple officials refused to answer questions yesterday about the arrests and whether the detainees had been deported.
Provincial police chief Nguon Koeurn said he was “too tired” to answer questions, while National Police spokesman General Keat Thavarith said he was not aware of the arrests before hanging up the phone.
O’Yadav district police officer Im Sam Ath said last night that police chief Chuob Vananrak was leading a group of officers into the forest, but he said he could not confirm that they were searching for the Montagnards.
Interior Ministry officials could not be reached.
Meanwhile, ethnic Jarai villagers who have been supplying the asylum seekers with food, water and medical supplies said yesterday that they were also concerned for their own safety.
“We are helpers and we are also worried because we hear they are looking for us too,” one said.
Analyst Ou Virak said that he expected more arrests to follow.
“The more the Montagnards cross, the more the government will take a hard stance,” he said, explaining that the government’s policy is “not to welcome asylum seekers from China and Vietnam”.
He added that it is “more the exception than the rule” for asylum seekers to be offered assistance in Cambodia, and called on the international community to “step up and do more” to protect the Montagnards.