As 14 Montagnard asylum seekers continue to evade authorities in the forests of Ratanakkiri province, an official said Sunday that police deported seven “Vietnamese Jarai” from the northeastern province on Saturday.
Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Nguon Koeun said border police arrested the seven on Saturday in O’Yadaw district’s Paknhai commune and handed them over to Vietnamese authorities near the border later that day.
“We arrested those people because they crossed the border illegally and farmed in our Khmer land,” he said.
“They are not Montagnards, they are Vietnamese Jarai people,” he added.
The Montagnards are an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands made up of about 30 hill tribes, including the Jarai. Although a population of Jarai lives in Ratanakkiri, most members of the ethnic group live in Vietnam’s Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces. All Vietnamese Jarai are considered Montagnards.
On January 3, a group of five Montagnard asylum seekers crossed into Ratanakkiri and have since been aided by a group of Cambodian Jarai in O’Yadaw district.
A separate group of nine Montagnards, including two children and an infant, arrived in the province on January 17 and has since joined the group of five. Both groups claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam.
Mr. Koeun said Sunday that police, who began door-to-door searches for the group of five shortly after they crossed the border, are no longer looking for the asylum seekers—whom he also referred to as “Vietnamese Jarai.”
“There are no Montagnards, but there are some Vietnamese Jarai people hiding in the forest,” he said.
Two men identified by police as “Vietnamese Jarai” were also deported from Ratanakkiri earlier this month. Local police, including Mr. Koeun, said at the time that they were not Montagnards and had merely wandered into Cambodian territory by mistake while farming.
Wan-Hea Lee, country director of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an email Sunday that the seven Montagnards had been deported on Saturday before her office could contact them.
“We have had no contact with this group and therefore are seeking clarification from the Ministry of Interior as to whether it has been verified that they sought asylum,” Ms. Lee said.
“The Ministry has not yet responded about the earlier group of 14,” she added.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)