The whereabouts of a Montagnard couple seeking asylum in Cambodia was in dispute on Thursday, with a government official claiming they were returned to their Phnom Penh home after being caught attempting to flee to Thailand, while a Bangkok-based NGO worker said the pair was in custody over fears they would escape.
Uk Heisela, chief of investigations at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said he was told by the ministry’s refugee department that the couple fled their temporary accommodations in Pur Senchey district’s Choam Chao commune.
“I have received information from the refugee department that the couple were stopped on Thursday at noon while they were walking in the city in an attempt to travel to Thailand,” he said on Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Heisela claimed the pair was not in custody and had been returned to their U.N.-funded accommodation.
However, Grace Bui, program director at the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, said the couple—a pregnant wife and her husband—were detained because they are the in-laws of a Montagnard woman who fled to Thailand in recent days to be with her husband.
“They came to the house at 7 o’clock in the morning and arrested them. The couple that got arrested, the husband and the wife are cousins of that guy” in Thailand, Ms. Bui said. “They’re afraid that if that guy’s wife escaped, then maybe this couple would do the same thing.”
Ms. Bui disputed the government’s assertion that the couple were returned to their home after attempting to flee.
“They have to say these people got caught while they were trying to get away,” she said. “They’re not going to say we just came to the house and arrested them. They need a reason to do that.”
She was also told they are being kept in poor conditions. “They have no food, no water to drink, no blanket and the wife is four months pregnant,” she said.
The latest wave of Montagnards fleeing to the jungles of Ratanakkiri province started in late 2014, with the asylum-seekers claiming to be escaping political and religious persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The flow stopped the following year as Cambodian authorities began to deport dozens back to their homeland.
Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, confirmed on Thursday that the couple in question were in detention at the immigration department.
The Catholic NGO “is very concerned about the married couple, of which the wife is pregnant. They were taken from the site on Thursday morning and they are still in the immigration detention,” she said.
More than 50 Montagnards fled Cambodia last month and are now staying on the outskirts of Bangkok with more than 200 other Montagnards while awaiting interviews with UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Despite being undocumented, the group is believed to be safer across the border as Thai authorities generally allow the Montagnards to live with relative freedom during their asylum assessments. The process can take years due to UNHCR’s lack of interpreters for Jarai, the group’s language.
A group of 13 Montagnards who were hiding with ethnic Jarai in the forest for weeks in 2014 while authorities attempted to arrest them was granted refugee status and flown to the Philippines in May while they sought asylum in a third country.
Six Montagnard asylum-seekers were returned to their homeland, Vietnam, in the middle of last month after Cambodia rejected their refugee applications.
There are currently about 100 remaining in Phnom Penh.
Tan Sovichea, director of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, declined to comment on the case. A spokesman for the regional UNHCR office did not respond to a request for comment.