PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (Christian Examiner) – A group of indigenous tribal Christians from Vietnam who fled persecution in the country's Central Highlands are about to be sent back into the lion's den, Radio Free Asia has reported.
The believers, part of several of the many hill tribes known as Montagnards (French for "mountain people"), left Vietnam last year under pressure from a government which supposedly guarantees religious liberty, but only allows it insofar as it supports the objectives of the state – which is Marxist atheism.
According to the report from RFA, the Cambodian government plans to deport "some" of the 160 Montagnards whose asylum claims have been processed and denied, with officials claiming they have failed to prove they are refugees.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for Cambodia's interior ministry, said it could take up to one month for each of the Montagnard Christians to be returned to Vietnam. First, they have the opportunity to appeal the Cambodian government's decision.
"The results of the interviews I obtained yesterday show that many of them didn't satisfy the requirements to be recognized as refugees," Sopheak said. "Now they have to submit additional evidence to justify their claims of mistreatment or persecution. After that, we will decide whether or not to deport them."
But another spokesman for Cambodia's immigration agency, Kim Sarin, took a much harder line. He said the Montagnards have two weeks to return to Vietnam, or else they will be forcibly returned.
"We have interviewed those Montagnard asylum-seekers one by one for the last few months and we evaluated that those people have no right to receive asylum from a third country because their answers do not comply with the convention on refugees," Sarin told the Cambodia Daily.
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"Those Montagnard asylum-seekers must leave Cambodia within two weeks after the decision of the immigration department. In the case that they do not leave, we will arrest them and send them back to Vietnam," Sarin said.
This group of 160 Montagnard Christians was part of a larger group that fled Gia Lai, Dak Lak, and Kon Tum provinces in central Vietnam in May. Some of the original group have already been returned to Vietnam while 13 were granted refugee status and allowed to move to the Philippines.
RFA also reported that Vietnamese authorities came to Cambodia to question the Montagnards and "encourage" them to return home. RFA said that move was "condemned by civil society as intimidation" of the ethnic minority Christians.