The Ministry of Immigration yesterday confirmed it plans to deport a Montagnard couple who were arrested in Phnom Penh last Wednesday, a move refugee advocates said could breach international law.
The arrest appeared to be a pre-emptive effort to prevent the young couple from fleeing to Thailand, following in the steps of their family members and some 50 other Montagnards – a predominantly Christian minority in Vietnam’s Central Highlands – over the past month.
Uk Hai Sela, head of immigration investigations at the Ministry of Interior, said the man and woman, who is four months pregnant, will be deported as soon as the paperwork is complete.
“I heard they tried to leave the camp where they stayed. They tried to run away, so they were sent to the immigration centre,” he said.
The couple will be returned to Vietnam because “they stayed in Cambodia without documents”, he said, while claiming he had “no idea” if their detention was connected to the recent exodus of Montagnards from Phnom Penh to Thailand.
Hai Sela’s account, however, was flatly denied by refugee advocates, who said the couple were summoned by police at 7:30 in the morning when the wife was still in bed and her husband was attending English class. “They are very, very worried,” said Grace Bui of the Montagnard Assistance Project, who spoke with the couple and their family members, now in Thailand, on Monday.
“The couple said they are still in prison and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
“The mother [of the pregnant woman] just cried and cried. She asked me if I can do anything, but what could we do?”
Bui added that security at the refugee site in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district was “very tight” for the remaining 90 asylum seekers there.
“If all these Montagnards escape to Thailand, it will have [a] bad reflection on the Cambodian government. They are trying to keep Vietnam happy, trying to return them all,” Bui said.
She feared returned refugees would face jail time and the persecution would be worse than before they left Vietnam.
Hai Sela told The Post earlier this month that another Montagnard family – a husband, wife and their two young children – were to be deported last week, though he could not confirm their status yesterday.
Those awaiting deportation are just some of 200 Montagnards who in 2014 and 2015 fled to Cambodia, claiming they suffered religious and political persecution.
The Jesuit Refugee Service’s Denise Coughlan said the pair was of the Ede ethnicity, under the umbrella term of Montagnard, and that their refugee claim had not yet been accepted or rejected.
“There just seems to be a misunderstanding in the immigration department about their status as asylum seekers and their protection by the UNHCR and the Royal Cambodian Government,” she said.
“By international law, and the Refugee Convention, which Cambodia is party to, once they receive an acceptance or a rejection letter they have 30 days to appeal their case.
“Under no circumstances should they be forcibly deported by the government.”
Coughlan maintained at least 30 cases had not been granted a decision. But Tan Sovichea, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment yesterday, last week told The Post the government had rejected all but three refugee applications.
Vivian Tan, of the UNHCR, said the refugee agency had been able to observe some of the interviews conducted by the Cambodian authorities to determine refugee status and was supporting appeals in appropriate cases. “While we can’t comment on individual cases, we are aware that some asylum-seekers have been detained,” she said in an email.
“UNHCR does not support the detention of asylum-seekers and has been advocating with the authorities to secure their release when it happens.”