A U.N. team returned to a province in northeastern Cambodia on Thursday to resume a search for a group of ethnic Montagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam after the authorities gave an assurance that they could be eligible for refugee status through a screening process.
The team from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) and officials from Cambodia’s Interior Ministry arrived in Ratanakiri province to look for and retrieve the 13 Montagnards, evangelical Protestant hill-tribe people who have been hiding in the jungle for six weeks.
Chhay Thi, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator of the rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that that the U.N. and government teams are scheduled to meet with provincial authorities on Friday to try to find the Montagnards.
“Tomorrow morning, they will discuss [the matter] with the provincial authorities, and after their discussions, they all will travel down to search and retrieve those refugees who are in hiding,” he said.
Adhoc will monitor and cooperate with the United Nations officials when the teams go to retrieve the Montagnards, he said.
“We will cooperate with the U.N. and Ministry of Interior as well as villagers, who are providing shelter for those refugees,” he said.
Chhay Thi said he believed it was safe for the refugees to come out of hiding since the government had given them an assurance that they would not be deported to Vietnam.
After the U.N. officials retrieve the Montagnards, the government would interview them to determine if they could be granted refugee status.
UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan told RFA on Wednesday that once found, the Montagnards would be taken to Phnom Penh to apply for asylum.
Chea Bunthoeun, the provincial deputy police chief in charge of immigration, declined to comment when contact by RFA.
Previously, provincial authorities said they would arrest and deport the Montagnards as illegal immigrants and refused to work with U.N. officials unless they had received permission from the interior ministry.
Last Friday, the U.N. team returned to the capital after Ratanakiri authorities refused to cooperate in the search and restricted their movements.
Most of the Montagnards from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province in the Central Highlands trekked across the border into Ratanakiri province in early November.
They have been receiving food and shelter from a group of Cambodian Jarai, one of many tribes that make up the Montagnards, according to reports.
The Montagnards previously told RFA that they were forced to enter Cambodia illegally to escape repeated threats from Vietnamese authorities, and have been hiding to evade capture by Cambodian authorities whom they believe will force them to return home.
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 of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.