More than a dozen ethnic Montagnards are hiding in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia after fleeing alleged religious persecution across the border in Vietnam, a member of a hill tribe living in the area said Monday.
The 13 Christian Montagnards, who crossed into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province from Vietnam’s neighboring Gia Lai province, are seeking protection from the United Nations’ refugee agency to resettle in a third country, the ethnic Charai tribe member told RFA’s Khmer Service on condition of anonymity.
Eight of the Montagnards arrived in Cambodia in early November, while another group of five joined them three days ago, he said, adding that all 13 have endured difficult conditions in the jungle because they are afraid authorities might arrest them and deport them back to Vietnam if they are found.
“The refugees are facing the threat of disease and don’t have enough food—they were fleeing from Vietnamese authorities who were trying to arrest them,” the Charai tribe member said.
“Vietnamese police contacted the Cambodian authorities to find them,” he said, adding that refugees are extremely susceptible to malaria while hiding in local jungles.
The Charai tribe member said that he and other villagers were worried that the safety of the 13 Montagnards might be “compromised” if the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and local rights groups do not come to their aid.
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar, who rights groups say suffer extreme persecution.
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 security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
Representatives of the minority group have said that 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.
Authorities to investigate
Ratanakiri provincial deputy police chief Chea Bunthoeun confirmed that authorities had received a report about the 13 Montagnards, but said he did not know their location.
He said that if the group members come forward to the police, authorities will evaluate them to determine whether they qualify as refugees or economic migrants.
“We will evaluate them. If they apply for refugee status, we will report their case to the government,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, told RFA that authorities would conduct an investigation into whether the Montagnards were eligible for assistance from the government.
“When we get [further details], we will travel to the province to see if they are really refugees,” he said, adding that Cambodia has acted several times in the past to help refugees resettle in third countries.
But Chai Thy, an official with Cambodian rights group Adhoc who is based in Ratanakiri, told RFA that the Montagnards do not trust local authorities, adding that his organization would do whatever it could to prevent them from being returned to Vietnam.
“They don’t want to go to the authorities first—they are waiting for help from international organizations, because they are afraid of the local authorities,” he said.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung refused to comment on the situation, saying he was unaware of the details.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.