Police in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district on Sunday arrested five Montagnard asylum seekers and were searching for three ethnic Jarai villagers who had been helping them evade authorities since they arrived from Vietnam about two weeks ago, villagers and a rights worker said.
A Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities, said police from O’Yadaw district’s Som Thom commune arrested the five asylum seekers while another four fled into the forest.
The group of nine, which included two young children and an infant, arrived in Ratanakkiri on January 19.
Twenty-three other Montagnards—an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—who crossed into the province over the past month are also hiding in O’Yadaw district.
All of the asylum seekers claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution in their home country.
Another Jarai villager, who was looking after the group of nine when police arrived, said about 10 officers in five vehicles entered So Kul village at about 4:30 p.m.
“They tried to arrest the nine people while they were staying on farmland in the forest,” the villager said.
“Me, my younger brother and sister are now hiding in the forest because police are attempting to arrest us too,” he said.
The villager added that the baby, two children and their mother were among the five arrested.
Multiple police and government officials in Ratanakkiri at the provincial, district and commune levels could not be reached Sunday.
Chhay Thy, a coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he received reports that police vehicles with the Montagnards inside were heading toward the Vietnam border.
“We think police are sending the five people to Vietnam, but it is not clear,” Mr. Thy said.
“I understand that deporting these Montagnard refugees is a violation of human rights and of the refugee treaty,” he added, referring to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Signatories to the convention agree to allow all asylum seekers access to the asylum procedure. Cambodia signed the agreement in 1992.
Ratanakkiri provincial authorities and Interior Ministry officials have on multiple occasions called the Montagnards illegal immigrants and threatened them with arrest and deportation, a violation of the Refugee Convention, which explicitly states that seeking asylum may require people to break immigration laws and says refugees should not be punished for doing so.
Wan-Hea Lee, country director of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an email that her office was aware of the arrests.
“We are very concerned about them and about the situation of all the Montagnards in hiding,” Ms. Lee said.
“We continue to try to liaise with the Ministry of Interior to address these issues,” she added. “The delays in dealing with the situation, even when the law is very clear in this case, highlight once again major governance problems in Cambodia.”
A group of 13 Montagnards who arrived in Ratanakkiri in October was transferred to Phnom Penh by the U.N. and Interior Ministry late last year. The Interior Ministry’s refugee department is currently processing the group’s asylum claims, along with the claims of three other Montagnards who arrived in Phnom Penh independently on January 21.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)