Four Montagnard asylum seekers were arrested and sent back to Vietnam on Tuesday after police found them hiding in Ratanakkiri province’s Lumphat district, an official said Wednesday.
Moeung Sineath, a spokesman for the provincial government, said police in the district arrested the four on Tuesday, referring to them as “Vietnamese Jarai.”
“We arrested four Vietnamese Jarai people and they were sent to the [Communist] Party of Vietnam on the same day because we have to respect the agreement of cooperation between our two countries,” Mr. Sineath said.
“I wish to state that police did not find those people in the forest, but they arrested them on a road while patrolling yesterday afternoon,” he added.
Although Mr. Sineath identified the four as Vietnamese Jarai—one of about 30 tribes that make up Vietnam’s indigenous Montagnards—Mr. Sineath insisted that they were not asylum seekers.
“I want to clarify that…the four people were not Montagnard refugees,” he said.
“They were Vietnamese crossing the border illegally.”
Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The four Montagnards arrested Tuesday were part of a group of nine who arrived in Ratanakkiri on February 10.
The remaining five were able to escape police and are now hiding in the forest, said a Cambodian ethnic Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
The villager, who has aided more than 60 Montagnard asylum seekers who have crossed into the province since October, also said that residents of O’Yadaw district reported seeing police deployed in the area Wednesday.
“I received information that police were driving 16 motorbikes to a forest in Khveng village in O’Yadaw district to find the Montagnards,” he said.
“They also brought a bag of rice to cook in the forest so they can watch for the Montagnards overnight,” he added.
Provincial and district police officials could not be reached.
There are now at least 41 Montagnards hiding in separate groups in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat and O’Yadaw districts. All of them say they are fleeing oppression by the Vietnamese government and have repeatedly called on the U.N. to help them reach Phnom Penh safely in order to apply for asylum.
A U.N. mission to reach the Montagnards in Ratanakkiri ended last week after local authorities refused to let the U.N. travel in the province without permission from the provincial governor or Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry’s immigration department in Phnom Penh is currently processing asylum applications from 13 Montagnards, while another 10 are in the capital waiting to apply for asylum.