A second group of asylum-seeking ethnic Montagnards has fled Vietnam and is hiding in the jungles of neighboring Cambodia amid fears they could be forcibly repatriated, a rights group and villagers said Tuesday.
The five Montagnards are believed to have entered the country on Saturday and are in a “safe location” in Ratanakiri’s Oyadaw district after fleeing “political and religious persecution” in their home country.
They are the second group to cross the border seeking asylum since 13 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).
An ethnic Jarai villager told RFA’s Khmer Service that the five Montagnards were from three villages in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province.
“They are in hiding in the jungle and fear that local authorities might arrest and deport them back [to Vietnam],” he said of the evangelical Protestant hill-tribe people, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They need the UNHCR and the government to intervene on their behalf immediately because living in the jungle they are being bitten by mosquitoes [which could give them malaria] and they lack enough water.”
Chhay Thi, the provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA he had informed the UNHCR about the new group and said U.N. officials were working with Cambodia’s Interior Ministry to send a team to Ratanakiri.
“I sent a request to the U.N. to help [the Montagnards] in the forest,” he said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said that her office was still working to confirm that the five are seeking asylum in Cambodia before taking action.
“We can't verify these reports of new arrivals and have no immediate plan to go to where they reportedly are,” she wrote in an email Tuesday.
“Regardless of where these people come from, UNHCR hopes that if they are seeking to make a refugee claim, they should be able to access Cambodia's asylum system and be processed by the government's Refugee Department, as the earlier group of 13 was able to,” she said.
Provincial spokesman Nhem Sam Oeun said authorities in Ratanakiri had received reports about the new group and would await further instructions from the Interior Ministry.
The 13 other Montagnards are being questioned by the Interior Ministry in the capital Phnom Penh to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.
The UNHCR’s Tan told RFA that the interview process is ongoing, but could not provide further information about the earlier group’s status.
“As a rule, we do not encourage our staff or government counterparts to share details of individual asylum-seekers as it could expose them to risks and may also affect their asylum claims,” she added.
The 13 Montagnards—also from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province—met with U.N. officials on Dec. 20 after enduring harsh conditions for more than seven weeks in the jungles of Ratanakiri, and had suffered from malaria, dengue fever and diarrhea.
Members of the group told RFA at the time that they had emerged from hiding “to request that international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) take us anywhere, as long as it is away from Vietnam, because we are afraid of persecution.”
The U.N. was able to meet with the Montagnards after it said teams had been repeatedly blocked by armed police in Ratanakiri while attempting to search for them, despite assurances of cooperation from central authorities in Phnom Penh.
Sourn Butmao, acting director of the Minority Rights Organization, told the Phnom Penh Post Tuesday that he expects “more Montagnards will come in [the] following weeks.”
The paper also quoted Analyst Ou Virak—formerly of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights—as predicting that more Montagnards will arrive, though he said “Vietnam will do more to … prevent people from leaving” to avoid the “PR nightmare” of an exodus.
Asked whether it would be hard for Cambodia to deport Montagnards just days after others were allowed to file claims, Virak said: “If it’s beginning to be a sign of a potential influx ... they will do it in a heartbeat.”
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards, or the Degar, and suffer extreme persecution, according to rights groups.
Early in the last decade, thousands in the region staged violent protests against the confiscation of their ancestral lands and religious controls, 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 and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.