Four Montagnard asylum seekers, who narrowly escaped capture by police in Ratanakkiri province earlier this month, arrived in Phnom Penh on Monday, the U.N. said.
Wan-Hea Lee, country director for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in an email that the four refugees met Monday with officials from the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh.
“UNHCR referred them to the Refugee Department of the Ministry of Interior,” Ms. Lee wrote. “We understand that they are in a safe lodging in Phnom Penh.”
Kerm Sarin, director of the refugee department, said he was not aware of the asylum seekers’ arrival in Phnom Penh and refused to comment further.
The Montagnards, an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, say they are fleeing religious and political persecution by the Vietnamese government.
An ethnic Jarai villager in Ratanakkiri, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from authorities, said the four asylum seekers left the northeastern province for Phnom Penh in a taxi on Sunday. He said another Jarai villager accompanied the group to the capital.
“We sent the four Montagnard asylum seekers to Phnom Penh to ask for help from the UNHCR,” the villager said. “We are worried that the authorities will find them because there is no more forest for them to hide, as police are searching every day.”
The villager said he had no plans to send any other Montagnards hiding out in Ratanakkiri to Phnom Penh.
“We are worried that the authorities might find out and arrest them on the way,” he said, adding that some 20 police officers and soldiers were searching for the Montagnards in O’Yadaw district’s Yatung commune Monday.
Ken Nguon, deputy chief of police in Yatung commune, denied that his officers were looking for the asylum seekers.
Provincial governor Thorng Savun refused to answer questions about the Montagnards.
“If you just called me to ask about the Montagnard case, I have no comment,” the governor said.
Besides the four who turned up Monday, 13 other Montagnard asylum seekers arrived in Phnom Penh in December after hiding in the forests of Ratanakkiri for more than two months. Another three made their way to the capital on January 21.
The refugee department is currently processing both groups to determine whether their members merit refugee status.
Twenty-three Montagnards who arrived in Cambodia last month are still hiding in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadaw district.
The four asylum seekers who arrived in Phnom Penh on Monday crossed into Ratanakkiri with five others, including two children and an infant, last month. On February 1, local police arrested the five while the four escaped.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said at the time of the arrest that police were driving the Montagnards toward the Vietnamese border.
Contacted Monday, Mr. Thy said he still does not know what happened to them.