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Hun Sen Defends Closure of UN Refugee Center

Montagnards from neighbouring Vietnam await registration by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees staff in Korng village, Ratanakiri province, in 2004.

The Cambodian government is defending its position to close a UN refugee center in Phnom Penh that had been used to give asylum to Montagnards from Vietnam.

In a Jan. 14 letter addressed to six US congressmen, Prime Minister Hun Sen says Cambodia extended its cooperation beyond a five-year agreement with the UNHCR and Vietnam.

“The [memorandum of understanding] covers only 750 Montagnards for temporary facility at the time of the signing,” Hun Sen says in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by VOA Khmer. “Many more cases have been processed, with up to 932 Montagnards having been given refugee status and resettlement in third countries.”

Hun Sen was responding to concerns raised by the US lawmakers as the refugee center nears its closing date, Feb. 15. Seventy-six Montagnards remain at the center.

In December, the lawmakers, led by House Republican Frank Wolf, of Virginia, expressed concern for the fate of the remaining Montagnards, a group that was an ally of the US in its war with Vietnam.

Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, Hem Heng, said Vietnam presented no reason for concern.

“Vietnam is a peaceful country with a growing economy,” he said. “It has no war. Therefore, there are no refugees. There is no refugee issue. That’s why the government has decided to close the camp.”

However, under it’s UN obligations, the US lawmakers wrote, Cambodia is “prohibited from forcibly expelling or returning refugees to territories where they may face persecution.”

The congressmen cited as an example for concern the forced deportation of 20 Muslim minority Uighurs to China in December 2009 and said they had “ample reason” to believe the Montagnards could face persecution in Vietnam.

In his response, Hun Sen said Montagnards who failed in their refugee attempts and were sent back to Vietnam “have been reintegrated into society without any oppression or persecution.”

A source close to the situation said Saturday only 65 of the remaining 76 Montagnards would be given refugee status. Those who are not granted the status will be returned to Vietnam.