A group of Christian Montagnards have made desperate appeals for help from the international community as the Cambodian government prepares to return them to Vietnam.
They say they face physical abuse and lengthy prison terms for defying the Vietnamese authorities by seeking refuge across the border in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government rejected the appeal for asylum by the 29 Montagnards, including seven children, and has threatened to deport them in the next few days.
“Under no circumstances should Cambodia force these refugees back to Vietnam, where they would face severe persecution on political and religious grounds,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
The UNHCR has been attempting to settle the Montagnards in a third country, but has been hampered by the Cambodian government’s refusal to classify them as refugees.
Hundreds of Montagnards, ethnic minorities from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, have fled the country in recent years in response to repression and intimidation by the Vietnamese authorities.
Viewed with suspicion
Rights groups say minorities in the region are persecuted for their adherence to independent Protestant churches that are not officially recognised by the government.
The Montagnards have long been viewed with suspicion by the Communist authorities as many worked with the French and later the Americans during the wars for independence and against South Vietnam.
One of the fugitives, Y Rin Kpa, told journalists that he had been sentenced to ten years in prison for his role in a demonstration for religious freedom.
He said they feared violent reprisals, religious repression and further periods in prison if returned to their villages across the border.
“Members of the group reported receiving threats that they would be imprisoned if they ever tried to flee abroad so now they have great concerns about what sort of reception they will receive if returned to Vietnam,” said Phil Robertson.