Provincial police in Ratanakkiri reportedly arrested and deported four Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam on Tuesday, where the mostly Christian ethnic minority allegedly faces religious and political persecution.
The incident marks the second known case of Montagnards being deported from the province in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a family of five, including children, were booted back across the border, where the father was reportedly detained for 12 days and beaten by authorities, according to family members.
The government insists that those they have deported were not asylum seekers but simply opportunistic farmers who crossed into Cambodia for economic purposes.
Rights groups, meanwhile, say the deportations of asylum seekers requesting UN assistance represents a blatant violation of the UN Refugee Convention, even as the government remains committed to accepting refugees processed in Australian-run detention camps on Nauru under a controversial resettlement scheme.
Tuesday’s deportations came as nine more Montagnards crossed the border, bringing the total hiding in the province to 50, rights group Adhoc said.
The four deportees were part of a group of nine that entered Cambodia on February 10 and had been hiding in the forests of Lumphat district, according to a local ethnic Jarai villager who assisted them, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
“We did not dare to set up a camp for them to stay, because we feared it would be visible. They stayed under the trees, but they were still seen by a spy who reported them to the police for arrest,” the villager said.
He added that although five others managed to escape, one woman arrested was separated from her husband. This account of events was backed up by Chhay Thy, a provincial monitor for Adhoc.
Moeng Sineath, a spokesman at Ratanakkiri Provincial Hall, acknowledged the arrests and deportations.
“I want to make it clear that they are not Montagnards, but instead are Vietnamese people who crossed the border to farm illegally,” he said.
“The land for cultivation [across the border in Vietnam] is not as large as in Cambodia. Our people living along the border just bring them [over] to farm,” he claimed, chalking up the arrests to authorities’ determination to combat illegal immigration.
Since December, 23 Montagnards have successfully made it to Phnom Penh to process their asylum claims, but the government refugee office said recently that it was only working on 13 cases.
Adhoc’s Thy slammed the authorities’ explanation for the deportations.
“They did not cross into Cambodia, in Ratanakkiri province, for economic purposes, to settle down in the village, or to do farming. They came to hide and call for help from [the] UN as political refugees,” he said.
He added that authorities should have at least allowed the group to be interviewed properly by the Interior Ministry or the UN before making the decision to deport them.
Government spokespeople have previously said the country has no intention of accepting political refugees.
UNHCR regional spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the refugee agency was concerned at reports that asylum seekers may have been deported.
“Involuntary return of individuals without access to a practical means by which to apply for asylum, if that is their wish, represents a failure in respect of international legal obligations that Cambodia has freely entered into,” she said.