Nine Montagnard Asylum Seekers Join 23 Others in Ratanakkiri

Nine more Montagnard asylum seekers crossed into Ratanakkiri on Tuesday, bringing the total number hiding in the province’s O’Yadaw district to 32, a police official said Wednesday.

“I have received information about the arrival of the new group, but we don’t have any specific information about those people,” said deputy provincial police chief Heng Rattana, adding that the Montagnards arrived Tuesday.

Echoing a sentiment expressed repeatedly by government officials in recent months, Mr. Rattana said that he did not think the nine Montagnards—an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—were legitimate asylum seekers.

“They are foreigners who crossed the border illegally to farm on our Khmer land in order to occupy the land forever,” he said. “We must take action to stop those people from crossing illegally.”

Mr. Rattana said police in Ratanakkiri were not searching for the new arrivals because provincial police chief Nguon Koeun was currently in Phnom Penh.

A Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from authorities, said the nine—eight men and one woman—were hiding in the forest in O’Yadaw.

The villager, who has aided more than 50 Montagnard asylum seekers since late October, said that the latest group was first spotted by a local woman collecting water. He said he has so far been unable to provide assistance to them due to the large number of police in the area.

“I think this group of nine people will not escape arrest because the authorities know about them and they are now searching the forest for them,” he said.

Since late October, 57 Montagnard asylum seekers—who say they are fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam—have fled to Cambodia.

Twenty have so far made it to Phnom Penh, where they are being processed by the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, while five others were arrested   in Ratanakkiri on February 1. The whereabouts of the five are unknown.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Wednesday that his ministry had not decided whether the Montagnards hiding in Ratanakkiri were asylum seekers.

“Before we can decide if they are illegal immigrants or refugees, we should meet them,” said General Sopheak, adding that local police were responsible for making first contact.

Asked whether his ministry would allow the U.N. to meet the asylum seekers, Gen. Sopheak hung up on a reporter.

Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, said her office was aware of the new arrivals in Ratanakkiri and was in communication with the Interior Ministry about assisting all of the Montagnards still hiding in the province.,

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