Nine Vietnamese Montagnards who are seeking the protection of the United Nations refugee office in Cambodia’s capital said Monday that they fled their homeland last month because of political persecution, and expressed concern about possible deportation by Cambodian authorities.
The ethnic Montagnard Christians are currently in hiding in Phnom Penh, where they arrived on Sept. 28 from northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province. Cambodian government officials have refused to register their names for them to be considered for asylum.
One of the refugees, who declined to be named and spoke with tears in his eyes, told RFA’s Khmer Service that if Cambodian authorities deport the nine, they will face persecution in Vietnam.
“We can’t stay in Vietnam [because] the Vietnamese authorities will arrest us and torture us whenever we practice our religion,” he said.
He requested that the Cambodian government allow him to stay in the country.
Cambodian authorities maintain that the roughly 200 Montagnards who have crossed into the country from Vietnam’s Central Highlands since late last year are not political refugees, but farmers who have entered the country for economic reasons.
Another refugee, who declined to be named, told RFA through a translator that Vietnamese authorities had arrested and imprisoned him several times, and had tortured him during his detention.
“Vietnamese authorities restrict our rights,” he said. “They don’t allow us to practice our religion, and if we dare to perform any religious ceremony, the authorities will summon us for questioning.”
The refugee also said Vietnamese authorities allow only families to practice their religion, but not large groups.
“Whenever three or four people meet, the authorities arrest us,” he said.
The Montagnards said they left Dak Doa district of Gia Lai province in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam on Sept. 23 and arrived in Phnom Penh five days later.
After spending a few nights walking through the forest, they hired a taxi to take them to the capital, they said, adding that they were cheated out of their money along the way and nearly penniless when they arrived.
Now they don’t have enough money to buy food and shelter, they said.
“Please help us,” said one of the Montagnards, directing his message to the Cambodian government. “I came here because of persecution. If the Vietnamese authorities didn’t persecute us, we wouldn’t have come here.”
On Sept. 30, the Ministry of Interior, which handles refugee issues, turned away the Montagnards and refused, along with the Refugee Department, to register their names, Wan-Hea Lee, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, told RFA last week.
Scores of Montagnards have emerged this year from their jungle hideouts in Ratanakiri province with the assurance of protection from the UNHCR, but others have been caught by local authorities and deported back to Vietnam.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), is helping some of them obtain asylum.
The UNHCR said in June that 116 people were still awaiting registration for asylum in Phnom Penh.
Reported by Tha Kitya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.