A group of 14 asylum-seeking Montagnards from Vietnam, including two young children and an infant, are suffering from exposure as they hide in the jungles of neighboring Cambodia amid fears they could be forcibly repatriated, a rights worker said Tuesday.
Nine Montagnards—Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—reportedly entered Cambodia on Jan. 17 and are hiding in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia’s remote northeast along with a smaller group of five who arrived earlier this month.
Both groups claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam.
Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for domestic rights group Adhoc, expressed concern for the health of the 14 Montagnards as they face cold temperatures while hiding in the jungle to avoid local authorities they believe will deport them back to Vietnam.
“The 14 people are facing a tough situation,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, regarding the conditions the group was enduring, despite receiving assistance from ethnic Charai villagers based in Ratanakiri.
“The [Charai] villagers told us that the police have been unable to locate them so far,” he said, adding that he had already contacted the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) for help on their behalf.
A Charai villager told RFA last week that the 14 Montagnards are also facing shortages of food, water and shelter, while provincial spokesman Nhem Sam Oeun said only the Ministry of Interior—not provincial authorities—could help them.
Provincial police chief Nguon Koeun refused to comment Tuesday on the 14 Montagnards in hiding.
"We can't locate the 14 people, so we don't have any information," he said.
Thirteen other Montagnards entered the country in early November and hid in the forests of Ratanakiri for more than seven weeks before emerging to meet with officials from the UNHCR. They were given safe passage to the capital Phnom Penh last month to apply for asylum.
Three other Montagnards left Ratanakiri and have been under U.N. protection in the capital Phnom Penh since Monday, according to Chhay Thy.
According to the Cambodia Daily, the latest group bypassed Ratanakiri and headed straight to the capital to meet with U.N. officials, who referred them to the government’s Refugee Department.
The three, a woman and two men all in their early 20s, made the journey with the assistance of a network of supporters in Vietnam, Cambodia and the U.S., the report said, citing a Charai villager and Adhoc.
Meanwhile, at least seven Montagnards were arrested by Cambodian authorities and deported back to Vietnam over the weekend, Chhay Thy said Tuesday, though local rights groups had been unable to identify them to determine whether they qualified as refugees.
The National Police Commission's website confirmed that authorities had deported seven “Vietnamese Charai” back to Vietnam, while police chief Ngoun Koeun told RFA that the seven were arrested on Saturday and returned home because they had “crossed the border illegally.”
Charai villagers in Cambodia told RFA Tuesday that the seven Vietnamese Charai were not refugees, but had accidentally crossed the border while trying to find a relative suffering from mental illness who had run away from home.
The Montagnards are an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands made up of about 30 hill tribes, including the Charai.
Although a population of Charai lives in Ratanakiri, most members of the ethnic group live in Vietnam’s Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces. All Vietnamese Charai are considered Montagnards.
Early in the last decade, thousands in the Central Highlands staged violent protests against religious controls and the confiscation of their ancestral lands, 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 for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.