Cambodia on Wednesday deported four ethnic Montagnards back to Vietnam after authorities arrested them in a raid a day earlier, according to a local government official in Ratanakiri province, where the group had been hiding in the jungle after crossing the border to escape alleged persecution.
Moeng Sinath, spokesman for the government of Ratanakkiri province told RFA’s Khmer Service the four Montagnards—Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—had been detained as they attempted to flee a police raid on Tuesday, though he declined to give details of their deportation.
“The police arrested them—I just received confirmation from the provincial police,” he said.
“They deported them, but I didn’t ask for details because it is police business.”
The move marks the second time this month that Cambodian authorities have deported a group of Montagnards to Vietnam’s Central Highlands after a family of five was sent home when they were discovered hiding in Ratanakiri.
Local villagers told RFA on Tuesday that police raided two Montagnard groups who were hiding in Ratanakiri’s Lumphat district after discovering their hiding spots in the jungle, adding that at least 13 armed police officers had taken part in the search.
The Phnom Penh Post cited a villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying around 40 police officers took part in the Tuesday raid on a camp of nine Montagnards who had crossed into Cambodia around two weeks ago, sending the group fleeing into the jungle.
Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, told RFA that seven more Montagnards had arrived in Ratanakiri’s O’Yadaw district Monday, adding that he was concerned for the safety of those who remain hidden because of a lack of food and shelter.
Still in hiding
The arrival of the seven and deportation of the four on Wednesday brings to 41 the total of Montagnards who are still in hiding in Cambodia, claiming they are fleeing persecution in Vietnam.
Authorities in Ratanakiri province had refused last week to cooperate with a U.N. team that wanted to retrieve the Montagnards and help them seek asylum.
Wan-Hea Lee, the U.N.’s office of the High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, told RFA that the authorities blocked U.N. vehicles from reaching areas where the Montagnards were hiding when the team arrived in the province on Feb. 16.
In addition to the Montagnards still in hiding, 13 others are being interviewed by the Interior Ministry’s refugee department to determine whether they qualify for refugee status, while another seven are waiting to register for the process in the capital Phnom Penh.
The Cambodia Daily quoted Lee as saying three more had arrived in the capital on Feb. 12, but “was not permitted to register.”
Refugees or migrants
Cambodia usually summarily deports Montagnards, viewing them as illegal aliens rather than a minority group fleeing persecution in Vietnam.
Chhay Thy told RFA Wednesday that around 3,000 Montagnards have been interviewed by the U.N. after crossing into Cambodia from Vietnam between 2001 and 2008.
He said the recent arrivals who have traveled into Cambodia since 2014 have complained of renewed religious persecution and being blocked from communicating online with nongovernmental organizations by authorities back home, though Vietnamese officials deny those claims.
“The refugees claim they came due to persecution and because they are blocked from Internet communication, however, Vietnamese authorities I have interviewed say they fled to Cambodia because they are in debt and only did so for economic reasons,” he said.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.