Police in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district began a door-to-door search Friday for five Montagnard asylum seekers who crossed the border from Vietnam last week, police and locals said.
Klam Thoeung, the Paknhai commune deputy police chief, said his officers first began looking for the group—who claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam—Thursday night.
“Police have been searching …but we have not found them,” he said.
Thul Dam, 67, an ethnic Jarai man said that about 20 police officers searched his home early Friday afternoon for the Montagnards, who are members of an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands that has long been at odds with Hanoi.
“I told them if there are Montagnards in my house, take me to prison,” Mr. Dam said.
Another Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities, said he has been sheltering the group in the forest since their arrival from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province on January 4.
“The five Montagnards are still in hiding to avoid arrest,” he said.
The villager added that more than 50 police officers accompanied by a provincial court prosecutor arrived in Paknhai commune at about 4 p.m. Friday.
“Police are searching for the Montagnards from house to house, but they have not found any of them yet,” he said.
The five Montagnards are the second group to cross into Ratanakkiri province seeking asylum in recent months. A group of 13 arrived at the end of October and hid in the forest until a U.N. delegation facilitated their transfer to Phnom Penh late last month.
The Interior Ministry’s refugee department is now processing the 13 to determine whether they will be granted refugee status.
Kem Sarin, the head of the refugee department, said he was not aware of the new group of asylum seekers.
“I don’t have any information about these Montagnards,” he said. “The [Interior] Ministry will not go to find them.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Thursday his ministry would cooperate with the U.N. to transfer the group to Phnom Penh.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)