International concern is growing over the fate of a group of Vietnamese Montagnards thought to be hiding in Cambodia.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expressed “deep concern” Tuesday over reports that Cambodian authorities are looking for the group “with a view to deporting them to Vietnam.”
Montagnards, many of whom are Protestants, have long claimed persecution in Vietnam for religious reasons and for their aid of U.S. troops during the Vietnam war four decades ago.
Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman said Tuesday the agency has been urging Cambodia to respect its obligations toward potential asylum seekers.
“I think there are two important points at this point. First of all, we continue to advocate with the government that this group cannot be sent back to a place where their lives could be in danger. And [secondly] they must also have access to asylum if they are seeking asylum," she said.
Cambodian police officials say they are searching for the group, which reportedly is in hiding in remote areas of northeastern Ratanakkiri province. But the police have denied claims they intend to immediately return them to Vietnam.
Nevertheless, Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said efforts by police to “detain and forcibly return” the asylum seekers “need to stop immediately.”
He adds that Vietnam has continued to persecute Montagnards with arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture and long prison terms on false charges.
Fleeing Montagnards from Vietnam have created political tensions in the past, pitting Cambodia’s U.N. asylum obligations against Vietnamese demands that they be returned.
In 2000 and 2001, thousands of Montagnards fled to Cambodia. Many were rounded up and returned to Vietnam, though some were eventually given asylum in the U.S. and other Western countries.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.