Armed police and soldiers surrounded an ethnic minority plantation in Ratanakkiri province’s Andong Meas district on Wednesday and demanded that villagers disclose the whereabouts of Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam, a rights worker reported.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said villagers reported that 14 police officers and two soldiers surrounded a Jarai minority plantation in Nhang commune, where 33 Montagnard asylum seekers are hiding in the forest.
“The police action is inhumane,” said Pen Bonnar, adding that the questioning did not lead to the arrest of asylum seekers. “[The police] will camp out in the commune tonight,” he added.
The operation to locate the Montagnards coincided with the arrival of a UN High Commissioner for Refugees team that was scheduled to arrive in the province Wednesday evening.
UNHCR spokeswoman Inge Sturkenboom said that, after months of waiting, her organization received on Friday permission from the government to travel to the province to search for Montagnards.
On Friday, police in Andong Meas district arrested five people, who rights groups say were asylum seekers, and deported them back to Vietnam for illegal immigration.
Andong Meas district Deputy Governor Im Sovann confirmed Wednesday that police are searching for a group of 10 “illegal immigrants,” similar to the group found and deported last week.
District police chief Kham Pean, however, maintained that his officers were not engaged in any search.
Kham Pean said that he had recently gone to inspect police checkpoints in the district to ensure his officers were back on duty following the Khmer New Year.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that he was unaware of villagers being pressured to inform on asylum seekers in hiding, and reiterated that it was against government policy for Montagnards to be deported.
(Additional reporting by Suzy Khimm)