Police in Mondolkiri province confirmed Monday the arrest and deportation of four Montagnard refugees to Vietnam on Aug 7, but denied reports that at least 20 more starving and seriously ill Montagnards are holding out in the jungle rather than face forcible return to Vietnam.
Reach Samnang, Mondolkiri province police chief, said the four were apprehended in Koh Nhek district on the border with Ratanakkiri province.
The four were “sent back to Vietnam by the border police unit…. This is the government’s principle,” Reach Samnang said by telephone on Monday.
“Whenever we meet those who illegally entered into the country, we must arrest and send them back,” Reach Samnang said.
More than 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia in 2001 following a military crackdown on their protests for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Cambodia closed its borders to the refugees last year after Washington agreed to resettle around 900 in US.
Reach Samnang denied reports that some 60 refugees recently crossed into Mondolkiri province.
Radio Free Asia reported on Thursday that the refugees fled to Cambodia on July 20. Due to starvation and illness, 34 returned to Vietnam and four others were arrested.
Two were successful in making contact with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Ratanakkiri province to seek help for the remaining 20, who are in hiding and living off bamboo shoots and wild tubers, according to the RFA report.
The US-based Montagnard Foundation Inc issued an appeal last week calling on the UNHCR to take action to assist the refugees—men, women and children—who allegedly face being shot, imprisoned or beaten if they are forced back to Vietnam.
“Unless urgent protection is granted, these and other Montagnards are likely going to be arrested, tortured or killed,” the foundation claimed.
Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UNHCR office in Cambodia, did not return telephone calls on Monday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak reiterated on Monday that reports of starving refugees holed up in Cambodian forests has not been confirmed by authorities.
“I have no information on this yet,” he said.
Cambodia has a policy of forced repatriation of Montagnards to Vietnam, said Khieu Sopheak, who added on Friday that Montagnards who flee to Cambodia “are still illegal immigrants.”