While 14 Montagnards, including a 4-month-old baby, remained in hiding in Ratanakkiri province yesterday, a fourth group of asylum seekers prepared to cross the border, according to local villagers.
An ethnic minority Jarai villager, who asked not to be named, said a further eight Christian Montagnards – indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – were seeking escape. “If we agree [to help the Montagnards], they will come and cross the border at night through the forest into Cambodia,” the villager said.
But, as of 7pm yesterday, the Jarai villagers in Ratanakkiri had not yet made a decision.
Since Montagnards began arriving in the area, the villagers have been subjected to intense police scrutiny.
Of the latest group hoping to flee the country, the villager said the authorities had cleared their farmland and abused them over their Christian beliefs.
“They [the authorities] do not allow them to believe in Jesus Christ, and they have also physically abused them. They cleared their land for rubber plantations, leaving only 10 or 20 metres [of farmland],” he said.
Reports that a new group plan to cross the border came just days after nine Montagnards arrived in the province, joining a group of five who have been in hiding there for two weeks.
Thirteen other Montagnards were given safe passage to Phnom Penh in December to process asylum claims.
Three children were among the latest arrivals “They came with nothing,” said a 45-year-old villager who is assisting the group. “The 4-month-old baby is still being fed by her mother. It is damn difficult.”
As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Cambodia is obligated to assess asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status without penalty.
But Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Nguon Keurn said that anyone helping to hide “illegal immigrants” could be punished under the Kingdom’s immigration laws.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, did not comment yesterday on whether OHCHR would consider visiting the Montagnards without government authorisation.
But, she said, “the reports of young children being part of the groups reported to be in Ratanakkiri adds to the urgency of the situation, which we are discussing with the Ministry of Interior”.
Interior Ministry officials could not be reached.
Political analyst Ou Virak said he expected the Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities to step up efforts to prevent more asylum seekers from crossing the border in the coming days. “It will be a very tough ordeal for people trying to escape.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY