The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday warned authorities in Cambodia against forcibly repatriating 13 ethnic minority Montagnards who are hiding in the country after fleeing alleged persecution in neighboring Vietnam, as police combed the jungle for their whereabouts.
In its first written statement on the Christian Montagnards since most of them trekked from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province across the border into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province in early November, the UNHCR said it was “deeply concerned” at reports that Cambodian police were hunting the group in a bid to deport them.
“The involuntary return of the individuals to Vietnam would represent a violation of international legal obligations which the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia has freely entered into,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said in the statement.
“UNHCR strongly urges the government to refrain from—and instruct local authorities to refrain from—such action.”
The Montagnards have told RFA’s Khmer Service they were forced to enter the country illegally to escape repeated threats from Vietnamese authorities, and have been hiding to evade capture from Cambodian authorities, who they believe will force them to return home.
Members of the group say they hope to seek asylum in Cambodia, and meanwhile have been sleeping in hammocks without any shelter in the forests, where they face diseases such as malaria, and surviving on whatever food they can forage on.
Baloch noted that since the creation of its refugee department in 2009, the Cambodian government has been responsible for receiving and adjudicating asylum claims.
He said both the UNHCR and the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had written to the government urging that the 13 Montagnards be allowed to pursue refugee claims and suggesting a joint U.N.-government mission to the border area where they are located to better understand their situation.
Concerns over the safety of the Montagnards were echoed Tuesday by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which said in a statement that efforts by the Cambodian police to track, detain and forcibly return the 13 asylum seekers to Vietnam “need to stop immediately.”
“Under no circumstances should Cambodia send these persons back to Vietnam, since to do so would fundamentally violate Phnom Penh's commitments under the U.N. refugee convention,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division said in the statement.
“Police sweeps to locate these persons' jungle hiding spots should be halted right now, and safe passage provided to the 13 asylum seekers to go where they want to go.”
Robertson condemned what he called a “systematic and pervasive campaign of discrimination and persecution” against Montagnards by the Vietnamese government, which he said included arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture, and conviction to long prison terms on trumped up charges.
“Sending back the Montagnards now would show just how little refugee rights and protection mean in Cambodia,” he said.
“What needs to happen is these 13 persons should be allowed to travel to Phnom Penh unhindered so that they can tell their accounts of religious and political persecution to officials tasked with assessing refugee claims.”
Robertson said that any refugee assessment interviews must be fair and impartial, with appropriate participation by the UNHCR, adding that Vietnam’s “political agenda to deny the existence of persecution” of the Montagnards should not be allowed to influence Cambodia’s process to determine the group’s status.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment on the Montagnards, but police sources in Ratanakiri confirmed to RFA that several officers had been deployed to conduct searches for the group in recent days.
The sources, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that the Montagnards had not been located in the searches, which were being carried out in the jungles of Ratanakiri at night.
Representatives of the Montagnards told RFA that all 13 members of the group were safe and in hiding on Tuesday.
Last week during an interview, members of the group told RFA that some of them had previously been caught by Cambodian authorities and repatriated home.
They said that while in Vietnam they had received death threats from authorities, been prevented from worshiping, endured constant surveillance, and had been beaten in interrogations or imprisoned after speaking with relatives living abroad.
At least three of them have been struck by malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease that causes a high fever and chills, due to a lack of shelter and netting while living in the jungle, they said.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.