Police in Ratanakkiri province say they are attempting to locate a group of Montagnards who local villagers say crossed the border from Vietnam last week and are hiding in the forest.
Deputy provincial police chief Chea Bunthoeun said his officers are searching areas near the border after receiving reports from residents that 13 members of the Vietnamese indigenous group—long persecuted in Vietnam—crossed the border on Tuesday and Wednesday last week.
If discovered, Mr. Bunthoeun said, the group would be deported.
“If we find them, we will send them back to Vietnam because they are illegal immigrants,” he said. “[Cambodian] authorities will not treat them as legitimate refugees who are seeking a better life in a foreign country, because the situation in Vietnam is not bad.”
Mr. Bunthoeun said he was not aware of any recent oppression of Montagnards in Vietnam’s Gialai province to the east of Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces.
Hundreds of Montagnard asylum-seekers fled to Cambodia from Vietnam in the 2000s. Many were then forcibly repatriated, prompting widespread condemnation of the Cambodian government.
Ma Vichet, governor of Ratanakkiri’s O’yadaw district, said he suspected ethnic Jarai villagers in the area, who belong to the same ethnic group as the Montagnards, encouraged the border-crossers to head to Cambodia after hearing rumors that U.S.-based Montagnard leader Kok Ksor would visit Ratanakkiri later this year.
“I noticed that some of our Jarai men had a secret meeting a few weeks ago,” Mr. Vichet said, adding he presumed the discussion related to smuggling the Montagnards across the border.
Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said Cambodian authorities would work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) if Montagnards were found in Cambodia.
“We will have to cooperate with the UNHCR to verify whether they are real refugees for political reasons or whether they are coming here for economic reasons,” Gen. Sopheak said.
Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s regional press officer in Bangkok, said she was unaware of the reports of new Montagnards crossing into Ratanakkiri but would look into the case.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Chea Bunthoeun as the deputy police chief in Ratanakkiri province’s O’yadaw district. He is the deputy provincial police chief.