PHNOM PENH, Tuesday 15 February 2011 (AFP) - A UN refugee centre in Cambodia that housed Vietnamese ethnic minority Montagnards was closing down Tuesday, leaving the fate of future asylum seekers from the group in the hands of the government.
Rights groups say the largely Christian Montagnard community -- whose members backed US forces during the Vietnam war -- face land confiscations and religious persecution in Vietnam.
The Cambodian foreign ministry in December gave the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) until February 15 to shut down the facility where 75 Montagnards had sought shelter.
"The site will be closed by today (Tuesday)," foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said.
The UNHCR said it had found new living arrangements for the majority of the group, though 10 of the Montagnards did not qualify as refugees and are set to return to Vietnam.
Fifty others have been resettled in Canada and the United States is accepting four refugees through resettlement and one through immigration.
"That leaves 10 more and we expect that they are going to leave Cambodia as regular emigrants," said UNHCR Asia spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey.
From now on Montagnards who come to Cambodia seeking asylum would have their claims heard by the Cambodian refugee office, she said.
Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over the new arrangement, saying Cambodia had "a dismal track record when it comes to deporting recognised refugees and asylum seekers".
"Montagnards will continue to try to flee Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese government systematically violates their basic rights," said HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
"It's imperative that the Cambodian government live up to its international obligations and not force asylum seekers back to a place where their lives and their liberty will be at stake."
The closure of the centre appeared to signal the end of a 2005 deal between Vietnam, Cambodia and the UNHCR 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.
Some 2,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia in 2001 and 2004 after security forces crushed protests against land confiscations and religious persecution.
The majority were resettled, with the United States taking in many.