Cambodian authorities on Wednesday refused a request for asylum made by nine Vietnamese Montagnards who had traveled to Phnom Penh to ask for help, and whose presence in the country had previously gone unreported.
The nine arrived in the capital on Sept. 30, but were turned away by the Ministry of Interior, which refused to register their names, a U.N. rights officer posted to Cambodia told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday.
“OHCHR was alerted to the arrival of nine new asylum seekers yesterday requesting assistance,” Wan-Hea Lee, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia wrote in an e-mail.
“I understand that they were also refused registration by the Refugee Department, as have all others who crossed over this year,” she wrote.
The group, which had traveled to the capital from northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, had earlier told local contacts they feared being returned to Vietnam, where they said they face political persecution, one Ratanakiri villager said.
“The Vietnamese authorities are cracking down just now,” the villager said, adding that another Montagnard, traveling alone, had entered Ratanakiri on Sept. 28.
“They are being persecuted. The Vietnamese authorities want to arrest some of them, and some of the others were just recently released.”
Chhay Thi, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, confirmed that the group had been present in the area for at least a week and said he had told U.N. representatives of their request for help.
Cambodian authorities maintain that the nearly 200 ethnic Montagnards who have crossed into Cambodia from Vietnam’s Central Highlands since late last year are not political refugees, but farmers who have entered the country for economic reasons.
In mid-July, a dozen Montagnards who had sought refugee status in Cambodia willingly returned to Vietnam after Hanoi gave assurances it would not punish or discriminate against them. It is not known what happened to them after their return.
While turning away the Montagnards, a senior Ministry of Interior official told RFA on Thursday that Cambodia will accept as refugees two Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar currently detained by Australia on the small Pacific island of Nauru.
“We have seen their documents,” Kem Sarin, head of Cambodia’s Immigration Department, said, adding that immigration officials will travel to Nauru to interview the two asylum-seekers before they come to Cambodia.
“They have volunteered to settle in Cambodia, and after we speak to them we will return here to request permission from the government to accept them,” he said.
In April, Cambodia granted asylum to an Iranian couple, an Iranian man, and a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar who had sought asylum in Australia but were denied entry, being held instead for months in a camp in Nauru for refugees unwelcome in the country.
In exchange, Australia promised to pay more than U.S. $40 million in costs and aid to Cambodia, drawing criticism from rights groups who noted that Cambodia had forced asylum-seekers from China and Vietnam back home.
The Rohingya man later asked to be returned to Myanmar.
Reported by Ratha Visal, Sek Bandit. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.