Officials in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province on Friday assisted 14 ethnic Montagnards who asked to be repatriated across the border to Vietnam after they left Thailand, citing financial hardship because they were unable to find work.
Relatives of the 14 traveled from Vietnam to western Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province on the border with Thailand, where they met them in Poipet Thursday, and accompanied them to Ratanakiri, where they requested help to cross back into their home country, according to local authorities.
Ratanakiri deputy police commissioner Chea Bunthoeun told RFA’s Khmer Service that the 14 Montagnards were considered “illegal immigrants,” but said provincial authorities had agreed to assist them after they elected to return to Vietnam.
“After they volunteered to go back to Vietnam, we asked the provincial governor to help them return,” he said.
Ratanakiri-based Adhoc investigator Chhay Thy confirmed to RFA that the 14 Montagnards had not been forced to return to Vietnam.
But he suggested that the group qualified for refugee status, citing similarities to the case of a dozen Montagnards who sought asylum in Cambodia and willingly returned home in mid-July.
The 12 Montagnards returned to the Central Highlands region of Vietnam on July 16 after Hanoi gave assurances it would not punish or discriminate against them, according to rights group and United Nations officials.
They had been part of a group of 31 Montagnards that fled Vietnam in April citing discrimination, and immediately traveled to Thailand to apply for asylum. They later left for Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and moved into the office of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), but voluntarily returned home because “they couldn’t wait for their cases to be processed,” rights group Adhoc said at the time.
It was unclear if the 14 Montagnards who returned to Vietnam on Friday were part of the original group of 31 that had traveled to Thailand seeking asylum in April.
A Montagnard source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA that he had helped transport the 14 to Thailand through Laos, and said they had hoped to find jobs that paid well there.
But he said that after members of the group faced difficult living conditions in Thailand, they contacted their families in Vietnam and asked for help to return home.
A relative of some of the Montagnards who were repatriated on Friday confirmed that they had decided to leave Thailand because of financial difficulties.
“My family members didn’t understand the situation in Thailand—they were told that they would be able to get good-paying jobs there, so they decided to go,” said the relative, who declined to provide his name.
“When they arrived in Thailand, they couldn’t find jobs. They couldn’t just stay there without money, so that was why they returned to Vietnam.”
The relative did not specify whether discrimination or persecution had contributed to the group’s decision to leave Vietnam.
Flood of refugees
Nearly 200 Christian indigenous Montagnards have entered Cambodia illegally from Vietnam’s Central Highlands since late last year, claiming they are fleeing political and religious persecution in their home country.
Most have hidden in the forests of remote Ratanakiri province, surviving on the assistance of local villagers.
While scores have emerged from their jungle hideouts with the assurance of protection from the UNHCR, others have been caught by local authorities and deported back to Vietnam.
The UNHCR said in June that 116 people were awaiting registration for asylum in Phnom Penh.
Also last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report detailing how Montagnards in Vietnam are subject to constant surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and mistreatment in custody.
The group’s report said such persecution “reflects broader rights violations against religious minorities” in the country.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.