There are now 109 Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh waiting to be registered, according to the U.N., but a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said Monday the government does not recognize any of them as legitimate asylum seekers.
When asked whether the Montagnards would be allowed to register with the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, Khieu Sopheak, the spokesman, said that because they did not announce themselves to authorities immediately upon entering the country, the group are not officially asylum seekers.
“We don’t recognize them as Montagnards [asylum seekers], because they should have reported to the authorities since the beginning,” he said.
When the first groups of Montagnards—an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands that claim to be fleeing persecution—began arriving in Ratanakkiri province in October, police consistently threatened them with arrest and deportation if found. Eventually, at least 47 were detained and returned to Vietnam.
On Monday, General Sopheak claimed the Montagnards were continuing to arrive as part of a scheme in which Montagnards in the U.S. were paying human smugglers to traffic them into Cambodia, where they then hope to be given refugee status and resettled in the U.S.
“Somebody is involved in smuggling to attract those Montagnards from their hometown so they can go live in the United States. And those people guiding the Montagnards are telling them the specific location of the U.N.,” Gen. Sopheak said.
“How can they know the location of the NGO or the office of the United Nations in Phnom Penh?”
Just a week ago, there were only 85 Montagnard asylum seekers in the capital, but that number has continued to grow, said Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“As of today 8 June, there are 109 Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh. Like the previous groups, the most recent arrivals have not been granted access to the asylum procedure,” Ms. Lee said in an email.
Between 2001 and 2011, thousands of Montagnard asylum seekers fled to Cambodia, with more than 2,000 eventually being resettled as refugees in the U.S.
But when the U.N. closed its refugee center in Phnom Penh in 2011, Gen. Sopheak warned that the path to resettlement was closed.
“Montagnards should not come here again,” he said in February 2011. “If they come, we will implement our immigration law.”