Some 50 Montagnard asylum seekers have fled Cambodia to Thailand in recent weeks amid fears of forced repatriation to Vietnam, where they complain of discrimination and persecution at the hands of local authorities, a nongovernmental organization that monitors hill tribes said Monday.
Grace Bui, a volunteer with the U.S.-based rights group Montagnards Assistance Project, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that with the latest arrival of asylum seekers from Cambodia, the number of Montagnards based in Bang Yai, in central Thailand’s Nonthaburi province, had reached 250.
“There were only 200 people a few months ago but now there are 250 people,” she said.
“The reason is the government of Cambodia is very close to the government of Vietnam and it has returned some Montagnards to Vietnam. This makes a lot of people worry, so they traveled to Thailand.”
According to a report by the Phnom Penh Post, the 50 Montagnards left Cambodia in several separate groups beginning on March 25 after the country’s Ministry of Interior began rejecting some of their asylum claims last month.
The 50 included some individuals with a “very strong” case for asylum, the Post reported, citing Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been assisting a group of around 200 Montagnards that arrived in Cambodia in late 2014 and 2015.
Only three of nearly 100 Montagnards remaining in Phnom Penh are being considered for refugee status, the report said.
Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and, as in Cambodia, the Montagnards have no rights regardless of their registration with the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR.
When reached for comment, some of the Montagnards who fled Cambodia last month told RFA that their lives in Thailand have been difficult, but said the hardships they face in Vietnam are far worse.
“Cambodia rejected my case and [the government wants] to send us back to Vietnam, but we didn’t want to go, so we escaped to Thailand,” Y Hut, a member of the Ede minority said.
But he said that his situation in Thailand is also precarious, adding that he is “now in danger” of being taken into custody by authorities in Bang Yai.
Y Yony, another member of the Ede minority who fled to Thailand, told RFA that he would do whatever he could to avoid returning to Vietnam.
“If we return, we will be thrown in prison for five to 20 years,” he said.
“The last time I was imprisoned, I promised [the authorities] several times that I would not flee Vietnam and would seek their permission whenever I wanted to go anywhere. That is [another reason] why I don’t want to return.”
Y Yony said he does not have a stable job in Thailand and has been living hand to mouth since his arrival.
“I get jobs from here and there and get paid about 150 baht (U.S. $4.36) a day, and that is just to pay for my daily life,” he said, adding that most of the work he had done was helping to farm rice paddies.
A third member of the Ede minority named Y D’jom, who said he had arrived in Thailand earlier than the 50 who came in March, told RFA he was unable to work because the risk of arrest and repatriation was too high.
“I’ve been here since February and I have no job—I only stay at home because I’m not allowed to go anywhere,” he said.
“But I can’t return to Vietnam, because the police will arrest me there and torture me in prison. I’m scared.”
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar. The group of Montagnards who fled to Phnom Penh comes from the mountainous region of Gia Lai, Dak Lak, and Kon Tum provinces in central Vietnam, which border Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces of Cambodia.
The Montagnards living in Phnom Penh are among the more than 200 who have fled their country and crossed the border into Cambodia seeking help from UNHCR, citing oppression by the Vietnamese government.
Rights groups say the Montagnards, many of whom are Christian, have been victims of persecution and repression in Vietnam. The Montagnards also backed the U.S. in the Vietnam War and some have suffered repercussions for this.
Xiu A Nem, a protestant member of the J’rai minority, told RFA she had suffered extreme persecution in Vietnam because of her faith, and only managed to relocate to Canada in 2014 after fleeing her home country for Thailand.
“I was oppressed in Vietnam because I’m a protestant—they don’t respect religious freedom,” she said.
“I was imprisoned for two years, but I escaped to Thailand and got help from [rights groups] and was accepted for asylum by Canada.”
Reported by Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.