The Cambodia Daily quoted Thursday an email from Wan Hea-Lee, the head of the U.N.’s office of the high commissioner for human rights in Cambodia, as saying representatives would accompany officials from Cambodia’s Interior Ministry “shortly.”
She told the Daily that if the presence of the 13 Montagnards—who slipped across the border into the jungles of Ratanakkiri province six weeks ago— is confirmed, they can apply for asylum in Phnom Penh if they wish.
Montagnards, who predominantly originate in the highlands of Vietnam and practice Christianity, have been subject to a brutal crackdown that has seen their churches burned down, and members subjected to arrest and imprisonment.
Speaking to The Anadolu Agency on Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesperson Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak expressed his uncertainty about when the mission would get underway.
“So far we understand that some people can contact directly to the UNHCR headquarters in Phnom Penh,” he said by telephone.
Whether the Montagnards would be arrested or be able to apply for asylum once discovered would depend on their meeting the conditions for refugee status, according to Sopheak.
“One real Montagnard must be treated by the U.N. convention [on refugees], but others have to follow the Cambodian law of immigration, which is separate,” he said. “If they were real, OK, they get U.N. intervention. If they are not — if I go to America without a visa, I would be deported. Cambodia is the same.”
According to the Daily, the small group – originally reported to consist of 16 Montagnards -- has been relying on the help of an ethnic Jarai community since arriving across the border. However, it remains to be seen what will become of them.
In 2011, Cambodia shuttered a U.N. refugee center in which 76 Montagnards had been living. At the time, Lt Gen Sopheak was quoted by the Daily as saying the minority should not return to Cambodia.