A United Nations human rights expert has called for a speedy solution to the situation of the Montagnards from Vietnam still hiding in the forests of northeastern Cambodia, after crossing the border to escape alleged persecution.
“The condition of all the Montagnards while in the forests was a concern from the start and naturally becomes more worrying with the passage of time,” Wan-Hea Lee, the U.N.’s Office of the High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, wrote in an email to RFA’s Khmer Service.
“A speedy solution is urgently needed. Both the OHCHR and UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] are actively pursuing discussions with the relevant authorities toward that end as soon as possible,” Lee wrote in an email to RFA’s Khmer Service.
About 13 of the 50 Montagnards—Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—who sought refuge in Ratanakiri province remain in hiding there.
Cambodian authorities recently deported three dozen who had made their way to the capital Phnom Pehn to seek help from the U.N.
Last month, authorities blocked U.N. vehicles from reaching areas where the Montagnards were hiding after a team had arrived in the province.
Living in fear
Cambodian villagers who have been providing food and shelter to the helping the 13 Montagnards said the refugees face food shortages.
One villager, who declined to be named for security reasons, said the Montagnards were living in fear that Cambodian authorities would send them back to Vietnam.
“The refuge is no longer safe for them,” he said. “They are facing food shortages and health issues in the jungle. I met them directly, and they asked that the U.N. hurry up and help them. They are not safe here.”
RFA could not reach Khieu Sopheak, Cambodia’s interior minister, for comment.
The ministry’s refugee department determines whether asylum seekers qualify for refugee status.
But Cambodia summarily deports Montagnards, viewing them as illegal aliens rather than a minority group fleeing persecution in Vietnam.
Am Sam Ath, senior investor for the national rights group Licadho, said the Cambodian government had a duty to rescue the Montagnards so they could seek asylum in the country.
“They are facing rights and religious prosecutions,” he said, condemning the government for the recent deportation of the 36 Montagnards, saying it did not comply with refugee conventions to which Cambodia is a party.
“The government shouldn’t use immigration law to deal with refugees,” he said.
Reported by Ratha Visal of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.