Police in Ratanakkiri province located and attempted to arrest a group of nine Montagnard asylum seekers hiding in the forests of Lumphat district Tuesday, ethnic Jarai villagers and an official said, after seven more Montagnards crossed into the province on Monday.
Lumphat district police chief Soy Thai said his officers were actively searching for the group of nine after they evaded arrest.
“I am leading forces to find those people in the forest,” he said, declining to comment further.
A Jarai villager who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said police arrived in Chrey village in the district’s Seda commune at about 1 p.m.
“I saw 13 police and three vehicles arrive to the village,” he said. “Then they walked into the forest and tried to catch the nine Montagnard people, who ran to escape arrest.”
Another Jarai villager, who has been aiding the asylum seekers since they first began arriving in the province late last year, said he and other villagers located five of the nine. He said he was not sure of the fate of the other four.
“We just got information from villagers that police arrested the four and we don’t know where they sent them,” he said.
Several district and provincial officials declined to comment or said they did not know whether the four had been arrested.
Seven more Montagnards—an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—arrived in the province’s O’Yadaw district Monday, according to Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.
The newest group’s arrival brings to 45 the total number of Montagnards who say they are fleeing persecution in Vietnam.
A U.N. mission to reach the Montagnards last week ended after local authorities refused to let the U.N. travel in the province without permission from the provincial governor and Interior Ministry.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Tuesday that the fact that the mission was blocked from trying to help the asylum seekers have their refugee claims processed “is a reflection of the nature of Cambodian governance today.”
“That public officials should feel that they need instructions to obey the law and its voluntarily accepted international commitments is a reflection of the nature of Cambodian governance today, and the reason why fundamental reform is of the essence,” Ms. Lee said in an email Tuesday.
In addition to the Montagnards in Ratanakkiri, the Interior Ministry’s refugee department is processing 13 others to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. Another seven are waiting in the capital for the refugee department to allow them to register for the process.
Three more arrived in Phnom Penh on February 12, Ms. Lee said.
“The group was not permitted to register,” she said.
Kerm Sarin, the head of the refugee department, and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)