PHNOM PENH - Thirteen Vietnamese Montagnards have been recommended for refugee status by Cambodian authorities, pending approval by the Minister of the Interior.
But even as the news came Monday, so, too, did reports that 36 others who had fled Vietnam were arrested and deported last week.
Chhay Thy, a coordinator for the rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri province, said the 36, whom he referred to by the Cambodian name Jarai, were arrested when they tried to flee to Phnom Penh in three vans on the night of February 25.
“Thirty-six members of the Vietnam Jarai hill tribe [Montagnards] were arrested and sent back to Vietnam," said Chhay Thy. "One Cambodian Jarai man, who was their guide, was also arrested. Vietnam Jarais confirmed [by phone] that they were sent back to Vietnam, but the Cambodian Jarai man was pushed into a police vehicle and taken away," he said.
Cambodia's Interior Ministry said the 36 were found to be “illegal immigrants.”
Spokesman Khieu Sopheak added that the refugee status for the remaining 13 now will be considered for official confirmation.
“Experts of immigration in the general department of the Ministry of Interior have found that they meet the standards of political asylum seekers for refugees status. They need to wait for final approval by Interior Minister Sar Kheng," he said.
The 13, including one woman, had fled to the jungles of remote Ratanakkiri province late last year and were brought to Phnom Penh with the support of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Montagnards, many of whom are Protestants, have long claimed persecution in Vietnam for religious reasons and their aid of U.S. troops during the Vietnam War decades ago. The Montagnards have created political tensions in the past.
In 2000 and 2001, thousands fled to Cambodia. Many were rounded up and returned to Vietnam, although some eventually were given asylum in the United States and other Western countries.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.