Fearing repatriation to Vietnam, almost 50 Montagnards fled Cambodia for Thailand after the Interior Ministry began rejecting some of their asylum claims last month, The Post has learned.
Meanwhile, the head of the ministry’s refugee department Tan Sovichea yesterday revealed only three of nearly 100 members of the majority Christian Vietnamese ethnic group remaining in Phnom Penh were being considered for refugee status.
But the exodus, which began on the weekend of March 25, included some individuals with a “very strong” case for asylum, said Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been assisting the group during their stay in Cambodia.
“I can say I was very disappointed that some we considered to have very strong cases received a negative decision and very surprised at the number who were rejected in a very short space of time,” Coghlan said, adding the government began notifying dozens of the refugees that their applications were rejected on March 20.
“I hope the people who ran away are safe somewhere and hope in the future they receive a just decision,” she said.
Some 200 Montagnards – or “mountain people” as they were named by the French colonialists – arrived in Cambodia in late 2014 and 2015 from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, where the group has long complained of religious and political persecution by communist authorities and in decades past.
Reached yesterday by phone, one of the Montagnards who fled, a 27-year-old, said about 50 Montagnards had made it to Thailand in several separate groups. He said he left by car with five other people and spent two nights near the border before paying a broker $50 to get across during the night.
“We were absolutely terrified, but it would be much worse than that if we were sent back to Vietnam. They will arrest, jail or kill us” he said, speaking his native language of Jarai through a translator.
He said his group had made contact with Montagnards in Thailand before fleeing and added he was now with 14 runaways staying in a rental house and trying to make contact with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to apply for asylum. The UNHCR could not be reached for comment yesterday.
“We dare not go anywhere so we are not arrested; we just stay inside the home,” he said.
Though an initial group of 13 from the 200 who fled in 2014 and 2015 was granted refugee status – and flown to the Philippines in May where they are seeking asylum in a third country – most spent months in limbo before being registered as asylum seekers in January last year.
The Post has been told there are now 96 Montagnards left in United Nations-supported accommodation in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district, where immigration officers have increased their presence since the mass departure.
According to a source with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the exodus, police have now restricted the group’s movement.
“Before they were allowed to go out and they could play football. After the other group fled they are not allowed to go out a lot; just to buy food or go to the market for 10 to 15 minutes,” said the source. “They are all concerned that they will be rejected and taken back to Vietnam.”
Yesterday, at least four Cambodian officials, who were not in uniform, but were obviously there for security, occupied a table in front of the building while a vehicle from the Department of Immigration was parked nearby.
One official, who appeared to be in charge, directed questions to the Interior Ministry and refused to identify himself, saying: “You have no right to ask my name.”
Yesterday, Sovichea, of the refugee department, said he had “no information” on the fate of those who fled, but said it was “not a problem” for the Cambodian government and denied there was any pressure from Vietnam to send them back.
He said only 20 or 30 of the group were yet to receive a decision and noted some of those rejected had appealed their rejections. He said only three were being considered for asylum.
“Only three of them will hopefully be recognised as refugees,” Sovichea said. “The department has evaluated them and made a letter to the superiors to sign to agree and they will get it back within the next two weeks.”
Sovichea said the rest would be voluntarily repatriated to Vietnam with assistance from the UNHCR, as has been the case with other individuals rejected, including six who were sent back on March 14.
He added that authorities had intended last month to send back 10 people, but four refused at the last minute to leave and were later among those who fled.
The Montagnard speaking from Thailand claimed one of the recent returnees to Vietnam had been harassed by police upon arriving and “slapped in the face” for not answering questions about fleeing to Cambodia, though The Post could not independently verify this.
The asylum seeker said he had crossed the border into Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province in 2015 after being detained for two days by Vietnamese authorities who he said had also “tortured” his brother and jailed his brother-in-law, whom he said died in prison.
“[In Vietnam] we were persecuted, not allowed to gather, pray or celebrate Christmas. Particularly we were afraid of arrest by the authorities, so we fled to Cambodia but they did not grant us refugee status so we came here because we are frightened of repatriation to Vietnam.”