About 50 Montagnard asylum-seekers are currently hiding in Thailand after fleeing Cambodia last month amid fears they would be returned to Vietnam, where they claim to have faced widespread persecution.
The group ran away from their temporary U.N.-funded accommodation in Phnom Penh around the weekend of March 25 after a number of them had their applications for refugee status turned down, said Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards in Phnom Penh.
“All I know is that when my team went there, people disappeared, and they disappeared over two days and that some of them had been recently rejected as refugees,” she said on Monday.
Ms. Coghlan said that there had been no contact with the group since and she had little information about their whereabouts in Thailand, but that she believed there was a strong argument for them being granted refugee status there.
“Many of the cases merit consideration as refugees,” Ms. Coghlan said.
She said refugee status may be given to them by the U.N. and not the Thai government.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an email that she did not have information on the group’s situation.
“We don’t comment on individual cases, including whether or not people have sought asylum,” she added.
Tan Sovichea, head of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, could not be reached on Monday.
The development is the latest in a long-running saga involving the Montagnards, who began trickling into Ratanakkiri province in late 2014, claiming to be escaping political and religious persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
This flow stopped the following year as Cambodian authorities began to deport dozens back to their homeland.
A group of 13—who were hiding in the forest for weeks in 2014 while authorities attempted to root them out—was granted refugee status and flown to the Philippines in May while they sought asylum in a third country. About 100 are still in the capital.
A 2015 Human Rights Watch report entitled “Persecuting ‘Evil Way’ Religion” accused the Hanoi government of operating a systematic program of arrest, detention and torture against the Montagnards in an attempt to curtail religious practices and politically “autonomous thoughts” among the mainly Christian minority group.
Ms. Tan said in the email that the UNHCR was “generally satisfied” upon visiting 88 Montagnards who have been repatriated to Vietnam, despite being unable to comment on the wider situation in the Central Highlands.
However, Ms. Coghlan was not optimistic of their prospects back home.
“They’ve got strong cases to be refugees, some had spent many years in jail. Their past experience did not give them any hope that they’re going to be treated kindly when they return to Vietnam,” she said.
“I feel very upset about it all.”
wright@cambodiadaily.com
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