PHNOM PENH - A family of Montagnard refugees were sent back to Vietnam this week after they were caught hiding out in the Cambodian jungle, activists said Thursday, sparking UN criticism.
The five Montagnards, a French term referring to the mainly Christian ethnic minority groups in Vietnam's mountainous Central Highlands region, crossed into Cambodia in mid-January, following scores of others seeking sanctuary in recent months.
Many Montagnard groups practice forms of evangelical Protestantism, which puts them at odds with Vietnam's communist rulers, who tightly control religion.
The deported family, which included three children, were arrested by Cambodian authorities on Sunday in a remote jungle in northeastern Rattanakiri province, Chhay Thi, an activist from local rights group Adhoc, told AFP.
"They have been deported back to Vietnam," he said.
Moeng Sineath, Rattanakiri provincial government spokesman, confirmed that a group of Vietnamese nationals had been deported. But he denied that the group were Montagnards.
"They had crossed into Cambodian territory illegally to clear land and forest for farming. So our authorities arrested and deported them back to Vietnam," he told AFP.
But the UN refugee agency said it was "deeply concerned" that the family were returned to Vietnam "without being given an opportunity to file asylum applications," regional spokeswoman Vivian Tan told AFP.
"The involuntary return of individuals to a territory where their lives or freedom could be in danger contravenes international law," she added.
At least 27 Montagnards are still hiding out in Cambodia's jungle waiting for help from UN, according to Chhay Thi.
With the help of the United Nations some Montagnards have managed to apply for asylum. But many remain wary of coming into contact with Cambodian authorities for fear of being returned.
Hanoi routinely asks Cambodia to return those who flee.
In 2001 Vietnamese troops crushed protests in the Central Highlands, prompting an exodus of Montagnards.
In May 2011 thousands of Hmong people - one of the Montagnard groups - gathered in Vietnam's remote northwest apparently awaiting the arrival of a "messiah".
The gathering was broken up by authorities in circumstances that remain unclear.
Dozens of people have been jailed over the incident, which Vietnam has cast as a separatist plot to overthrow its government.