Fourteen asylum-seeking ethnic Montagnards from Vietnam are hiding in the jungles of neighboring Cambodia, amid fears they could be forcibly repatriated, a villager and rights groups said Tuesday.
Nine Montagnards—Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands— reportedly entered the country on Saturday and are hiding in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia’s remote northeast along with a smaller group of five who arrived early this month. Among the 14 are a six-year-old child and a four-month-old baby.
Thirteen other Montagnards entered the country in early November and hid in the forests of Ratanakiri province for more than seven weeks before emerging to meet with officials from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). They were given safe passage to the capital Phnom Penh last month to apply for asylum.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an ethnic Charai villager told RFA’s Khmer Service that he offered to help the 14 Montagnards, who were all safe at the moment, but expressed concern about local police finding their refuge and deporting them back to Vietnam.
“If there is any delay in retrieving them, I’m afraid that local authorities might be able to locate them,” the villager said. “They are in hiding in the jungle, and they are facing miserable conditions and need immediate help.”
Montagnards face shortages of food, water and shelter, he added.
Nhem Sam Oeun, Ratanakiri’s provincial spokesman, told RFA that he did not have any information about the Montagnards, but expressed concern about their health conditions.
He also said only the Ministry of Interior—not provincial authorities—could help them.
“The U.S embassy asked me about it, and the UNHCR wants to cooperate [to retrieve them],” he said. “They all should talk with the ministry,” he said.
Another group of eight Montagnards is said to be preparing to cross the border to seek asylum in Cambodia, according to a report in The Phnom Penh Post, which cited local villagers.
Chhay Thi, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator of the rights group Adhoc, confirmed that the 14 Montagnards were in the province, and said he already contacted the United Nations for help.
He said local authorities would not acknowledge the presence of the Montagnards and denied that they were politically persecuted.
“The U.N. should work hard with the Ministry of Interior to retrieve the Montagnards immediately,” he said.
Chev Sophea, provincial coordinator of the rights group Licadho, urged the government to respect the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Cambodia is a signatory.
Under the convention, Cambodia has an obligation to assess asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status without penalty.
He said villagers who helped the Montagnards must be free from persecution by local authorities.
Since the Montagnards began arriving in the area, villagers have come under intense scrutiny by police.
“Cambodia is a signatory country to protect refugees, so the people have the duty to provide those refugees with medical aid as well,” he said.
RFA was unable to reach U.N. officials for comments.
Vietnam's Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards, or the Degar, who suffer extreme persecution, according to rights groups.
Early in the last decade, thousands in the region staged violent protests against religious controls and the confiscation of their ancestral lands, prompting a brutal crackdown by Vietnamese security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
Representatives of the minority group have said they are only calling for indigenous land rights and basic human rights in Vietnam, despite attempts by Hanoi to link them to overseas separatist groups.
Reported by Ratha Visal of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.