Montagnard asylum seekers living in limbo in Phnom Penh worry the heightened police presence outside their home for the past two weeks could signal imminent deportation to Vietnam, where they fear they will face persecution.

Since about March 20, the usual police guard of one or two men often has swelled to eight or even 10 outside the Montagnards’ home in Choam Chao commune, refugee Y Rin Kpa said. He said about five stood guard on Friday.

“So many police of Cambodia came to guards us … about [10] people and so many their cars. So we are very worry about that,” he said in a message. “We are very worry about deporting to Vietnam.”

The Cambodian government’s Refugee Department Director Tan Sovichea on Thursday deflected questions about increased police presence.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked, before hanging up.

Reached again on Friday, he once more declined to comment, asking: “Is it your business to know?”

A visit to the Montagnards’ home by a Post reporter confirmed on Friday evening that five or six plainclothes officers remained outside the premises as late as 7pm.

One man identified himself as a police officer but refused to give his name or, after calling his superiors for advice, say which department he worked for. He insisted the amount of police presence was normal, between two and four officers.

According to Kpa, even more officers arrived later that night, bringing the number to 10.

The government has repeatedly pledged to return the remaining 29 Montagnards – an ethnic, mostly Christian minority hailing from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – after rejecting their claims for refugee status last year.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), however, has said the asylum seekers have well-founded fears of persecution and has urged Cambodia to send them to a safe third country, rather than breach the international law of non-refoulement.

Montagnard refugee Y Rin Kpa, 47, has had his asylum bid rejected in the Kingdom two times.

Read More: Montagnards returning to Vietnam speak of dread for what awaits them

UNHCR spokesman Keane Shum on Friday said the refugee agency was aware of the situation. “We understand the extra officers are still there but are not aware of how long they will remain,” he said.

Shum had previously said the UNHCR had been told the heightened presence was attributed to immigration officers training new recruits. However, the officers stationed at the house who declined to give his name denied any training was taking place.

Grace Bui, of the Bangkok-based Montagnard Assistance Project, said Montagnards at the Phnom Penh site had also informed her that the area was being “heavily guarded” and that police had taken many photos at the site. “The Montagnards were very scared so they stayed inside,” she said. “When the asylum seekers left the house, they had to sign out.”

On Sunday, Bui said the situation was largely unchanged.

“Everytime [sic] when they go out, the police follows them everywhere,” she said in a message. “They couldn’t go out to work since March 20.”

The unnamed officer, meanwhile, denied the asylum seekers were required to sign in or out, and maintained they were free to come and go as they liked.

Choam Chao Commune Police Chief Ros Sarady also denied any increase in police in the commune, or that any training was taking place. “There is no police training or immigration police doing anything in my area,” he said. “It’s quiet.”

The news comes as Amnesty International released a list of Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience. Of the 97 featured on that list, many of whom face years in prison, almost a third are ethnic Montagnard Christians.

Kpa himself has already served most of a 10-year sentence in Vietnamese prison for participating in a protest for religious freedom, before he fled across the border to Cambodia in June 2015.

Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network Program Coordinator Evan Jones said that, irrespective of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh being denied refugee status, “it remains blindingly clear that the entire group still have serious protection concerns and should not be forced to return to Vietnam”.

“If Amnesty’s recent list of Prisoners of Conscience in Vietnam is anything to go by, there is a significant chance that many would be jailed soon after arriving,” he said in an email. He urged the government to allow the Montagnards to leave Cambodia in preparation for resettlement in a third country.

Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda

Updated: 6:56am, Monday April 9, 2018