Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The fate of 13 asylum seekers from Vietnam hiding in Cambodia's remote northeast has focused a spotlight again on the country's policy towards would-be refugees - and on Vietnam's treatment of its ethnic minorities.

Claiming religious and political persecution, 13 members of the Jarai ethnic minority left their homes in neighbouring Vietnam's Central Highlands last month and are now camped in a jungle on the Cambodian border.

The involuntary return of the individuals to Vietnam would represent a violation of international legal obligations.

- UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Fearing arrest by Cambodian authorities with historically close ties to Vietnam, the minority members, known collectively as Montagnards, are seeking political asylum and intervention from the United Nations.

The Christian Montagnards once fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War and have suffered the repercussions from that move ever since. 

"I wish to appeal to the UNHCR to help us," one of the asylum seekers told the Cambodia Daily newspaper during an interview in their forest hideout last week.

Mixed messages have emerged from Cambodian police regarding the reception the asylum seekers are likely to receive should they emerge from their hiding place.

One provincial police chief warned the Montagnards would be arrested on sight and returned to Vietnam, as per a request from the government there. Officials in Phnom Penh said they will determine whether the asylum seekers deserve protection.

Legal obligations

In a statement issued from its Geneva headquarters, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was concerned police might hand over the Montagnards to Vietnamese authorities, putting their lives in danger.

"The involuntary return of the individuals to Vietnam would represent a violation of international legal obligations ... UNHCR strongly urges the government to refrain from - and instruct local authorities to refrain from - such action."   

Asylum seekers "should not be sent back where their lives or freedoms could be in danger", said Vivian Tan, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Bangkok.

In Ratanakkiri province, human rights worker Chhay Thy said he is in contact with the 13, three of whom are suffering from malaria while all are short of food. Conditions in the jungle are severe with day-long torrential downpours making life even harder for the group, which has split up to avoid detection by police searching the area.

"We can't take them to hospital," said Chhay Thy, adding some locals have helped by providing medicine.

'Refugee dumping deal'

Cambodia's adherence to the UN Refugee Convention has come under scrutiny following the recent signing of a deal that will see Cambodia take in asylum seekers that Australia has refused to accept, in return for $35m in Australian aid money and resettlement costs.

Concerns over Australia-Cambodia refugee deal

Critics of the so-called Australia "refugee dumping deal" said Cambodia is ill equipped to adequately provide for refugees, pointing out Phnom Penh's track record of deporting asylum seekers, including Montagnards, considered dissidents by China and Vietnam.

Deporting the Montagnards back to Vietnam "would show just how little refugee rights and protection mean in Cambodia, and no amount of public relations spin to the contrary from Canberra will convince anyone otherwise", said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

"Put simply, this is a clear test case that will demonstrate whether Cambodian pledges to uphold the Refugees Convention are worth the paper that they are written on in the MOU with Australia," Robertson said.

Lieutenant General Sok Phal, chief of Cambodia's immigration police department, said the Montagnards would be treated in accordance with the law.

"Cambodia is not like five or 10 years before because now we have a refugee department and good cooperation with UNHCR. We respect well international law. I think the media and the Montagnards should not be afraid," said Sok Phal.

Vietnam War history

After a years-long hiatus, the 13 are the most recent asylum seekers to leave Vietnam since Montagnard protests first erupted in 2001 and again in 2004.

Sweeping arrests and long prison sentences followed the protests, which saw thousands of ethnic minority members rally for indigenous land rights and greater religious freedom in the Central Highlands, rattling Hanoi and undermining an official narrative of ethnic harmony and equitable post-war development.

If the Cambodian government has compassion, they can help them. Or they can send them back and they will die.

- Kok Ksor, Montagnard Foundation

More than 2,000 Montagnards were eventually resettled overseas. Hundreds were also rounded up and deported from Cambodia.

The majority of those who reached the safety of the UN in Cambodia were resettled in the United States, a decision that owed much to the storied history between the American military and the Montagnards, many of whom fought with US Special Forces during the Vietnam War.

Hanoi, for its part, blames the Montagnard protests on hostile foreign forces working with local reactionaries to undermine national development.

Prominent on Vietnam's list of state enemies is Kok Ksor, an ethnic Jarai and president of the South Carolina-based Montagnard Foundation, also know as the Degar Foundation. Degar translates as "Sons of the Mountains".

Phnom Penh has a choice, Kok Ksor said, to treat the latest asylum seekers with dignity and give them shelter from persecution, or deport them back to Vietnam where they will receive severe punishment. "If the Cambodian government has compassion, they can help them. Or they can send them back and they will die."

Kok Ksor said he had little hope for the plight of Montagnards and their struggle to preserve a distinctive way of life, and to worship as they wish.

"Our people have lost all hope because no one cares for us any more," Kok Ksor said. "Even the US government doesn't do anything for us."

Western governments have re-engaged with Vietnam on the economic and diplomatic fronts despite the country's continuing dire record on human rights, which includes its treatment of Montagnards, he said.

"Everyone wants to ignore us because our people are so few and our land so small. Everyone wants to help Vietnam - and we are in the way - because everyone wants to stop China's expansion. No one wants to say that Vietnam does anything bad," he said.

Montagnards, Kok Ksor said, have only one hope now: Jesus Christ.

"They want us to die out," he said. "All we can do is pray."

Source: Al Jazeera