A group of 36 Montagnards who on Wednesday night attempted to escape their forest hideout in Ratanakkiri province by traveling in a truck to Phnom Penh have been missing for two days, a rights worker and local villagers said on Friday.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said local ethnic Jarai villagers informed him they had lost contact with the asylum seekers after the group attempted to flee the northeastern province late Wednesday night.
“There were 36 Vietnamese Jarai including three women that got on a truck to leave from Ratanakkiri province around midnight on [Wednesday] to Phnom Penh,” said Mr. Thy, referring to the Montagnards.
“Until now, we have not received information from them yet and we do not know where they disappeared,” he said, adding he had informed the U.N. and the U.S. Embassy of the situation.
A 48-year-old Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from authorities, said one of his friends, a fellow ethnic Jarai, was among the group traveling in the truck.
“He told me that he was bringing 36 Vietnamese Jarai to Phnom Penh but he did not tell me why he was taking them there,” the villager said, adding that the driver had picked up 18 people from a clearing in O’Yadaw district, eight from Bakeo district and 10 from Lumphat district.
“They have disappeared…. I tried to contact their phones but they are not working now,” he said.
Moeung Sineath, spokesman for the provincial government, said he had not received any information about the group’s disappearance but that authorities were continuing to search for the Montagnards in the forest.
“Now it seems quiet. Our authorities are trying to find them to ensure their safety and supply them with food,” Mr. Sineath said.
The disappearance of the truckload of asylum-seekers comes after four Montagnards were deported Tuesday after being arrested in Lumphat district. Mr. Sineath claimed on Wednesday that members of the group were not Montagnards but rather “Vietnamese crossing the border illegally.”
The deportees were among 41 Montagnards hiding in Ratanakkiri after crossing the border in recent months to escape what they say is political and religious persecution in Vietnam.
All claim to be legitimate refugees, and have called for the U.N.’s assistance in ensuring that their claims are processed by the Interior Ministry’s refugee department in Phnom Penh.
However, the latest U.N. mission to contact the Montagnards in Ratanakkiri ended last week after local authorities blocked U.N. officials from traveling inside the province, saying the mission was not approved by the provincial governor or Interior Ministry.
The latest influx of Montagnards from Vietnam began in October and has seen more than 60 cross the porous border seeking refuge. The Interior Ministry’s immigration department in Phnom Penh is currently processing asylum applications from 13 Montagnards, while another 10 are in the capital waiting to apply for asylum.
Uk Heisela, chief of investigations at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said he had no information on the Montagnards’ disappearance. But if they are found and deemed to be illegal migrants, he said the department “will take action by the law.”
Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional press officer in Bangkok, said she had not received any information on the 36 Montagnards. The U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh did not respond to requests for comment.
(Additional reporting by George Wright)