Eight more ethnic Montagnards from Vietnam are hiding in the forest of a northeastern Cambodian province, according to villagers with knowledge of the situation and a national rights group.
The seven men and one woman, who are between ages 20 to 40, have been in hiding in Ratanakiri province since Monday, villagers who live in the province’s Lumphat district close to the Vietnam border told RFA’s Khmer Service.
But with the continued flow of Montagnards entering the area, villagers who provide them food and shelter are now facing food shortages themselves, said one villager, who declined to be named.
“We have helped them, but we don't have enough food and safe refuge,” he said. “Right now there is no thick forest anymore. They are afraid that they will be arrested.”
The arrival of the eight new Montagnards plus another known to be at large in Cambodia brings their total number to 50.
The villagers said they did not make known the presence of the new group of Montagnards at first, because they did not have a chance to inform local rights groups and the United Nations to help the Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands obtain asylum status. The Montagnards say they face persecution in Vietnam.
The group originally had a ninth member, but he lost his way, villagers said.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, told RFA that local police have continued to patrol the area where villagers are hiding the Montagnards who have crossed the border.
He said the growing number of Montagnards entering Cambodia and hiding in the province has outstripped the available safe hiding places or food supplies.
“The Cambodian villagers who are helping the Montagnards have their own problems,” he said. “They are having difficulties and cannot give them supplies. The refugees have asked the U.N. to help them.”
Arrivals and deportations
The news of the new group of Montagnards comes a day after authorities deported four others back to Vietnam after they were arrested a day earlier.
Their deportation coincided with the arrival of seven more Montagnards in Ratanakiri’s O’Yadaw district.
Earlier this month, authorities had deported a family of five Montagnards to Vietnam after they were discovered hiding in Ratanakiri.
Rights groups have criticized the deportations as violations of Cambodia’s commitment to protecting refugees and allowing them to apply for asylum under an international convention the country signed in 1992.
Dozens of Montagnards have fled to Cambodia in recent months, citing religious and political persecution in Vietnam.
But Cambodia authorities say the Montagnards are not refugees escaping political and religious persecution in their homeland, but rather farmers who enter the country for financial reasons.
In sharp contrast to the tough stance on the Montagnards, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Thursday that Cambodia had decided to accept refugees from Australia on humanitarian grounds.
Australia has housed about 500 of its refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru after the government there began making refugee status determinations last year, according to a report in The Sidney Morning Herald.
An additional 900 asylum seekers are being held in the country’s detention center waiting for their refugee status to be determined, the report said.
Australia struck a $40 million deal with Cambodia last September to accept refugees who volunteered to be resettled in the southeast Asian nation.
Cambodia was originally supposed to allow about 1,000 refugees from Nauru resettle in the country, but the number has since been was reduced, according to a report by The Guardian.
“We are taking only those refugees from Australia who volunteer to come,” Hun Sen said.
He also said politics in Australia had led to criticism of the refugee deal between the two governments.
“We only accept only volunteers, but if they don't want to come, it is up to them,” he said. “We can't force them to be here. The Australian political conflict has affected the deal in Cambodia."
Less strict conditions
On Monday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental group that helps resettle migrants, agreed to resettle refugees from Nauru to Cambodia under conditions that were less strict than those of the original deal.
Now all refugees on the island can live and work any place in Cambodia, rather than being restricted to the capital Phnom Penh for one year before moving to rural areas under the previous terms.
The refugees also will receive access to health care, education and employment opportunities in Cambodia.
“IOM believes that its involvement will facilitate improvements for the good of all parties in this extremely complex situation, bearing in mind IOM’s mandate to ensure the well-being and dignity of all migrants,” the organization said in a printed statement.
Critics of the deal have said the refugees would have difficulty in Cambodia, because the country is poorly suited to accept them and severely corrupt. They also note that Cambodia has a terrible record of protecting the rights of refugees and a dismal human rights record.
So far, however, none of the refugees on Nauru has volunteered for relocation to Cambodia.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.