Updated: January 22, 2016 06:18 AM GMT
A Vietnamese Montagnard family is moved to a United Nations safe house in Phnom Penh in this 2004 file photo. (Photo by Suy Se/AFP)
More than 100 Vietnamese asylum seekers in Cambodia were granted reprieve from planned deportations, one day ahead of Vietnam's Communist Party congress.
In late 2014, scores of Christian Montagnards began crossing the border, fleeing abuse in Vietnam — where authorities are known to forcibly prevent religious practices and violence in detention is widespread.
In spite of the known dangers, many were deported to Vietnam, while several dozen returned voluntarily after being told that their applications would not be processed.
Of more than 200 who arrived over the past 16 months, only 13 had been granted refugee status. The remaining were facing a February deadline to leave voluntarily or be forced out.
On Jan. 20 however, the Cambodian government abruptly changed its policy, announcing that they would process all remaining asylum seekers.
After a closed-door meeting with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, Interior Ministry officials said they had agreed to allow "more than 100" Montagnards currently in the country to remain while their applications were pending.
"There's a group who have applied for refugee status and have been processed … they will be transferred," Lt. Gen. Por Phak told ucanews.com. "Those who have not yet been through the process will, hopefully in the near future."
The 13 Montagnards in the first group will be sent to the Philippines, though he did not know when or where they will stay until their applications for residency in a third country are processed.
The second group will be given interviews "hopefully in the near future."
Phak said the meeting resolved only the issue of the Montagnards already in the country and did not touch upon what might happen to future asylum seekers.
Montagnards, a blanket term for numerous ethnic minorities living in Vietnam's highlands, have long faced persecution at the hands of the Kinh-majority government.
"Montagnards are discriminated by Vietnamese authorities and Vietnam tries to force them to give up their belief," said Vu Quoc Ngu, head of Hanoi-based Defend the Defenders. "The discrimination is systematic."
Most Montagnards are Christians not officially recognized by the government.
Vietnam's Communist Party opened its eight-day party congress in Hanoi Jan. 21. Held every five years, the congress gathers together more than 1,500 Communist Party members to name the country's new top leaders.
While much of the decision-making happens ahead of time and behind the scenes, it represents a tense moment and is accompanied by increased repression and monitoring, said rights groups.