Backtracking on a claim that a Montagnard couple accused of trying to flee to Thailand had not been detained, an immigration official said on Monday that the pair—a pregnant woman and her husband—were in custody and would be deported to Vietnam.
Uk Heisela, chief of investigations at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said on Thursday that the couple had attempted to escape their temporary accommodation, but were caught and returned to the house in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district.
The government’s claim was contradicted by Grace Bui, a volunteer for the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, who insisted the couple were picked up at their home and were being held at the immigration department over fears they sought to join a relative who was among dozens of would-be asylum-seekers who recently fled to Bangkok.
Major General Heisela on Monday confirmed that the couple had, in fact, been detained by his department and would soon be deported.
“The couple are now being held at my place and I plan to send them back to Vietnam soon,” he said.
“We will send the couple to Vietnam because they crossed a border without having passports and they are not Montagnards as they cannot speak the Vietnamese ethnic Jarai language,” Maj. Gen. Heisela added.
Asked why he stated last week that the pair were not in custody, Maj. Gen. Heisela claimed the refugee department initially planned to send them back to the rented accommodation, but then orders were given to detain them.
“First, the refugee department planned to keep the couple at the house in
Choam Chao commune, but the upper level ordered the refugee department to keep them at the immigration department because they tried to escape, so we are implementing the law to deport them,” Maj. Gen. Heisela said.
Both Ms. Bui and Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, have said the pair were taken from their accommodation and had not attempted to leave the country, but the government believed them to be a flight risk.
More than 50 Montagnards fled Phnom Penh last month and are now hiding in a suburb of Bangkok while awaiting interviews with UNHCR, the U.N. agency that offers assistance to refugees.
They claim to have escaped widespread political and religious persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government.
About 100 Montagnards remain in Phnom Penh.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, said the agency was aware that some Montagnards had been detained.
“UNHCR does not support the detention of asylum-seekers and has been advocating with the authorities to secure their release when it happens,” she said in an email.
Tan Sovichea, director of the Interior Ministry’s
refugee department, declined to comment on the case.
(Additional reporting by George Wright)