Two weeks after five Montagnard asylum seekers crossed into Ratanakkiri province from Vietnam, the U.N. said Sunday that reports of the arrival of nine more—including three children—added to the situation’s “urgency.”
Two ethnic Jarai villagers living in Ratanakkiri said the nine Montagnards—an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—arrived on Saturday and are hiding in the forest in Andong Meas district.
Wan-Hea Lee, country director of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in an email Sunday that her office was still discussing the Montagnards with the Interior Ministry, but did not say whether the U.N. would attempt to reach them.
“OHCHR is concerned about these recent reports of a new group of Montagnards having cross[ed] the border, including children, which adds to the urgency,” Ms. Lee said. “It is imperative that the Montagnards be given the chance to indicate whether they seek asylum.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached.
Police in O’Yadaw district, where the five Montagnards who crossed the border earlier this month are currently hiding, began door-to-door searches of Jarai homes on January 9, threatening to arrest the asylum seekers and anyone harboring them.
An ethnic Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from local authorities, said the nine new Montagnards claimed to be fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam.
“We asked those people why they fled Vietnam and they told us the same reason as the previous group of 13,” the villager said, referring to 13 Montagnards he helped hide in Ratanakkiri in October who have since been transferred by the U.N. to Phnom Penh, where they are applying for refugee status.
“The group is now staying in a safe area, but we plan to change their location because we are worried authorities might find them and arrest them,” he said.
Another Jarai villager, living in Andong Meas district, said he spoke to the group after spotting them while collecting cassava on Saturday afternoon.
“They told me they fled Vietnam because they had been threatened by Vietnamese authorities,” he said, adding that the group consisted of five men and one woman, as well as the woman’s two young daughters and 9-month-old son.
Provincial police chief Nguon Koeun and Andong Meas district police chief Sovan Phin said they were not aware of the nine new Montagnards.