U.N. officials are seeking a meeting with Vietnamese Montagnards in northeast Cambodia, but are waiting for a green light from officials in Phnom Penh.
Spokesman Khieu Sopheak says Cambodia's Ministry of Interior is “considering” a request from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“There is a proposal from UNHCR. I have just got the proposal last week. We are considering it. There is no decision yet,” says Khieu Sopheak.
A small number of Montagnards have been in hiding in the forest of Ratanakiri province since late October, claiming oppression in Vietnam. They were discovered by Cambodian hill tribe minorities in November.
Chhay Thy, Ratanakiri coordinator for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, says authorities have already begun searching for the group, raising concerns the Montagnards will be deported before they have a chance to give details of their case to refugee officials.
“We have information that the authorities are enforcing the investigation, talking to people living along the border between Vietnam and Cambodia to search for the groups: one group has eight members and another group has five members,” says Chhay Thy.
Nguon Koern, police chief of Ratanakiri, denies the Montagnards would be immediately deported.
“Now police in our province are taking measures to search for them in the forest because we have gotten information that these people came to live in hiding in the province. But this is informal information. To clear the doubt, I sent my police in search for them in the forest. But so far we have not found them - not even their traces,” says Nguon Koern.
UNHCR officials could not be reached for comment Monday.
The Cambodia Daily reports that Hanoi has asked Cambodia to arrest the Montagnards and return them to Vietnam.
Montagnards fleeing from Vietnam have created political tensions in the past, pitting Cambodia’s U.N. asylum obligations against Vietnamese demands that they be returned.
Montagnards, many of whom are Protestants, have long claimed persecution in Vietnam for religious reasons and for assistance they rendered to U.S. troops during the Vietnam war more than 40 years ago.
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 VOA’s Khmer Service.