Cambodia postpones closure of Vietnamese refugee centre

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia on Friday extended a deadline to shut down a refugee centre housing dozens of Vietnamese ethnic minority Montagnards, giving in to pleas by the UN refugee agency for more time.

The largely Christian Montagnard community -- a group whose members backed US forces during the Vietnam war -- say they face repression in Vietnam.

The Cambodian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had earlier been informed by the foreign ministry that the facility in Phnom Penh would be closed on January 1.

In a letter, it urged the UNHCR to speed up the resettlement of 62 Montagnards who had been granted refugee status and vowed to repatriate any remaining refugees to Vietnam, prompting the UNHCR to request more time.

"We extended the date of closing down the centre from January 1 to February 15, 2011" Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told AFP.

But he said 14 Montagnards who had not yet received refugee status still faced being sent back to Vietnam.

"We do not want any refugee centre in Phnom Penh any more," he said, adding that the centre was never meant to be a long-term solution.

A spokeswoman for UNHCR said she had not been officially informed of the delay but welcomed the move.

"We very much hope that it's true. That would give us the extra time we need to find long-term solutions for those 62 Montagnards," UNHCR Asia spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey told AFP.

She refused to comment on the situation of the 14 other Montagnards.

Around 2,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia in 2001 and 2004 after security forces crushed protests against land confiscations and religious persecution.

Vietnam, Cambodia and the UNHCR signed an agreement in January 2005 under which Montagnards may choose whether to resettle in a third country or return home. Cambodia has refused to allow them to stay in the kingdom.

The majority were resettled, with the United States taking in most.

Communist Vietnam has strongly denied a 2006 accusation by the New York-based Human Rights Watch that it had detained and tortured Montagnards who returned home.


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