PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Thirteen hill tribespeople known as “Montagnards” have left their jungle hideout in Cambodia and will apply for asylum after crossing from Vietnam to flee persecution, it was announced Sunday.
The minority group had for more than seven weeks sought refuge in the jungle in Cambodia’s northeastern province of Rattanakiri, fearing arrest and deportation by authorities.
But after contact with rights groups and the United Nations, eight Montagnards including a woman emerged from their hideout early Saturday to meet a UN team.
The remaining five men from the group were later found in the forest by local officials who handed them over to the UN team, activists told AFP. All 13 were being transported to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh by the UN Sunday.
“The group will be registered by the government’s refugee department after they arrive in Phnom Penh,” said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Bangkok, explaining the Montagnards will formally apply for refugee status in the capital.
“Montagnards” is a French term referring to the patchwork of mainly Christian ethnic minority groups who live in Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands region.
Many Montagnard groups practise forms of evangelical Protestantism, which puts them at odds with Vietnam’s communist rulers who tightly control religion.
“All 13 Vietnamese Montagnards are now safe from deportation” by local Cambodian authorities, Chhay Thi, of local rights group Adhoc, told AFP.
Many of the group are suffering from illnesses including dengue fever and malaria after spending weeks camped in the malaria-ridden jungle, he added.
The UN previously said local Cambodian authorities had denied them access to help the Montagnards, who are from the Jarai ethnic minority group.