More Montagnard asylum seekers arrived in Ratanakkiri province last week, two of whom were immediately deported, just days after 13 others were given safe passage to claim asylum from religious persecution, villagers and activists said yesterday.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said seven ethnic Jarai Montagnards – indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – illegally crossed into the province’s O’Yadav district on Friday.
According to Thy, two of the Montagnards were detained by police before being sent back across the border into the hands of Vietnamese authorities, while the other five remained hidden yesterday in the province’s Yatong commune, dodging deportation.
“The refugees are hiding in the forest and today some 50 police officers in seven vehicles are surrounding the area to arrest them, but they are still safe,” Thy said yesterday afternoon.
A post on the National Police website on Saturday confirmed that two ethnic Jarai males were apprehended at O’Yadav International Checkpoint on Friday.
The deportations came as a group of 13 Montagnards, who spent more than seven weeks in hiding, remained in Phnom Penh yesterday awaiting a response to their applications for asylum. Authorities denied for weeks that the group were Montagnards and blocked the United Nations from visiting them before eventually allowing them safe passage to the capital.
In Ratanakkiri yesterday, the authorities’ reaction seemed to mirror their initial response to the 13.
Local villager Muong Sorl, 33, said that he spoke to two of the Jarai asylum seekers on Saturday morning before they were chased away by border police.
“They crossed along a corridor without anything on them and entered the village.… We saw only two, but we do not know how many [there were in total]. When we asked, they said they were Jarai,” he explained. “We do not know if they were arrested or not.”
Provincial police chief Nguong Koeun denied yesterday that any Montagnards had been found in the province.
“They were simple people who lost their way at the border. We did not arrest them, but our forces told them to go back,” Koeun said of the two who were deported on Friday.
Kem Sarith, of the Ministry of Interior’s department of immigration, also said he was not aware of any more Montagnards crossing into the Kingdom.
But ethnic Jarai local Romas Lit said police had been doing door-to-door searches for the Montagnards in the province’s Lom village since Saturday night.
“They go from house to house, asking how many males and females there are in the family and whether we are hiding the Montagnards. We said no. Some went into our house and searched under the house,” he said.
Lit added that the village was surrounded by mixed security forces.
Thy, of Adhoc, said it was not surprising that authorities had denied that Montagnards were in the province.
They “are always regarded as illegal immigrants and sent back. They [local authorities] do not respect human rights and the UN Human Rights Convention,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said reports of deportations were “very worrisome”.
“If two Montagnards have in fact been arrested and deported, it shows that the Cambodian government is right back to its rights-abusing ways of treating those fleeing Vietnam as targets to be rounded up,” he said by email. “What this shows is a lack of serious understanding and commitment to its treaty obligations”.
“The Cambodian police should call [off] their search for the remaining persons in the group, and central government authorities should call in the UN to help ensure the group is protected,” he added.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said UNHCHR doesn’t “have first hand information at this point and will be looking into these reports with our UN partners”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY