The U.N.’s refugee agency on Tuesday confirmed that 13 Montagnards have crossed into the country from Vietnam and urged the Cambodian government to refrain from deporting members of the group at the risk of endangering their lives.
“UNHCR is aware of 13 Montagnards from Viet Nam who recently arrived in Cambodia,” Vivian Tan, the regional press officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an email.
“We advocate that they should not be sent back to a place where their lives or freedoms could be in danger, and we will cooperate closely with the Cambodian Government to ensure that those in need of international protection receive it,” she said.
The Montagnards, an ethnically homogenous but culturally varied group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, have long faced persecution and often imprisonment in Vietnam for the form of Christianity many of them practice.
Hundreds of Montagnards fled to Cambodia from Vietnam in the 2000s, beginning with a mass exodus in 2001, when some 1,000 sought refuge in Phnom Penh.
On Monday, police in Ratanakkiri province’s O’yadaw district said they were searching for the new group of Montagnards after being tipped off to their presence by local residents who spotted them hiding in the forest.
Deputy provincial police chief Chea Bunthoeun vowed to deport the “illegal immigrants” if they were caught.
An ethnic minority villager living in the area, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from authorities, Tuesday said he had visited the Montagnards, who crossed the border in two groups over the past month.
“The 13 Montagnards are living in the forest, but I cannot tell you where specifically, because local authorities are searching for them and want to send them back to Vietnam,” he said.
“I met them all when [the second] group arrived, and I asked them why they had come from Vietnam to live in Ratanakkiri and they told us that they escaped from prisons in Vietnam when they were let out to urinate or for labor,” he said.
“We plan to appeal to international organizations, especially the U.N. in Cambodia, to rescue them from the forest,” he added.
O’yadaw district governor Ma Vichet said Tuesday that if the Montagnards are found to have entered the country illegally, legal action would be taken against them.
“There is information indicating that Montagnards have crossed to our land, but our authorities conducted a search for them and could not find them,” he said. “If they came here illegally, we will enforce the law and send them to court.”
On Monday, Mr. Vichet said that he believed the group had crossed the border after hearing rumors that U.S.-based Montagnard leader Kok Ksor would visit the province later this year.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)
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.