A group of 36 Montagnard asylum seekers who went missing last week after they left their hiding places in the forests of Ratanakkiri province have been arrested and deported back to Vietnam, the U.N. and local villagers said Sunday.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an email that the group, who attempted to leave Ratanakkiri for Phnom Penh on Wednesday night, were deported on the same day.
“To the best of our knowledge, the deportations took place on 24 and 25 February,” Ms. Lee said.
Last week, Ratanakkiri provincial spokesman Moeung Sineath said four other Montagnards—an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—were arrested Tuesday and handed over to Vietnamese authorities.
Mr. Sineath could not be reached Sunday.
An ethnic Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from police, said the 36 Montagnards left O’Yadaw and Lumphat districts in two groups of 18—on foot.
“We decided to send the Montagnard refugees to Phnom Penh because we don’t have people to look after them,” he said. “Some villagers do not dare to take care of them because they are worried they will be arrested for helping the Montagnards.”
The villager said police arrested both groups at midnight on Friday in Kon Mom district to the west. He added that there were five Montagnards still hiding in O’Yadaw district.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said Klan Hoeun, 42, a Jarai villager from O’Yadaw district, was also arrested early Friday morning while attempting to help the Montgnards reach Phnom Penh.
“One of the refugees arrived in Vietnam and told us by telephone that police arrested them and put them in trucks,” he said. “They also arrested Mr. Klan Hoeun and put him in a separate truck and drove away.”
Mr. Thy said Mr. Hoeun’s brother, Klan Dom, 38, filed a complaint with Adhoc on Sunday.
Contacted on Sunday, Mr. Dom said he hoped the rights group could help him locate his brother.
“I think police probably arrested my brother because he led the group of 36 Montagnard refugees,” he said. “I want Adhoc to help me find the truth, even though he is now under arrest.”
Multiple provincial- and district-level officials either declined to comment or could not be reached Sunday.
A 45-year-old Jarai villager living in O’Yadaw district’s Yatung commune said he was able to speak to one of the deported Montagnards, Seav Sal, by telephone on Saturday.
“She told me she already arrived at her home in Vietnam,” the villager said. “The woman told me that she is alright after arriving home, but authorities were just angry at her because she fled from Vietnam.”
According to the villager, Ms. Sal said she is from Chu Puh district in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province and does not know what happened to the other 35 Montagnards.
Besides the five still hiding in Ratanakkiri, there are 13 Montagnards in Phnom Penh currently being processed by the Interior Ministry’s refugee department. Another 10 are waiting in the capital until they are allowed to access the asylum procedure.
Sok Phal, head of the immigration department, declined to comment.
More than 70 Montagnards have crossed into Cambodia since October, all claiming to be fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam. But authorities in Ratanakkiri have repeatedly referred to the Montagnards as “illegal immigrants,” threatening to deport them and arrest any local Cambodians found to be helping or hiding them.
Despite its lack of symphathy for asylum seekers, the government in September signed a much-criticized agreement with Australia to allow legally recognized refugees being held on the South Pacific island national of Nauru to be resettled in Cambodia in exchange for an additional $35 million in aid over the next four years.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in an email on Sunday that Cambodia’s stance on the Montagnards was influenced solely by its cozy relationship with Hanoi.
“Cambodia is assessing refugee protection based on proximity, and the Montagnards have the unfortunate luck to live next door under the rule of an authoritarian government allied to Phnom Penh,” he said.
“Where’s the justice in that?”
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Klan Dom filed a complaint with Adhoc on Saturday. He filed the complaint Sunday.