The UN High Commission for Refugees said Tuesday it could not confirm whether seven Montagnard asylum seekers allegedly trafficked into Cambodia are now in custody.
However a senior Interior Ministry official said Monday the Montagnards are now in the care of UNHCR and that police have arrested a Phnom Penh resident for allegedly accepting payments to smuggle the asylum seekers across the Vietnamese border.
“We cannot confirm which are the ones allegedly ‘trafficked’ by this woman,” UNHCR protection officer Toshi Kawauchi wrote in an e-mail.
Chhay Sinarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s internal security department, said Monday that Thach Thy Savang, alias Phan Savang, 45, a member of the Khmer Krom ethnic minority, was arrested March 26 and sent to the municipal court two days later, where she was charged with human trafficking.
Officials at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court could not be reached Tuesday; however, Chhay Sinarith said Thach Thy Savang was suspected of illegally ferrying seven Montagnards into the country from Vietnam on four occasions.
Thach Thy Savang is in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison while the seven Montagnards, including two children, are in the care of the UNHCR in Phnom Penh, he said.
An officer in the internal security department who asked not to be named said Monday that police suspected Thach Thy Savang had received about $22 per Montagnard.
Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association, said police had in the past incorrectly suspected Khmer Krom members of human trafficking.
Kawauchi said Tuesday that taking payment to assist asylum seekers cross international borders can fall under an accepted legal definition of human trafficking.
“While refugees can…be exonerated from the provisions on illegal entry, others, who are not refugees and persons assisting them would not benefit from such provisions,” he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)