The site, in Sen Sok district, now houses about 76 refugees and asylum seekers from Vietnam – members of highland ethnic minorities that rights groups say face ethnic and religious persecution by the Vietnamese government.

On November 29, the government wrote to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to inform the agency that it would close the site on January 1.

The letter called on UNHCR to speed up the resettlement of 62 registered Montagnard refugees at the site, but said any unregistered asylum seekers – officials say there are “more than 10” – would be deported to Vietnam upon the centre’s closure.

In a statement yesterday, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights said the decision to close the Sen Sok site on January 1 was “further evidence that the treatment of political refugees in Cambodia is secondary to the government’s political and economic prerogatives”.

CCHR compared the case to the government’s forcible deportation of 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China in December last year, which it linked to the prior announcement of a US$1.2 billion Chinese aid-and-loans package.

Similarly, it added, “the decision to close the centre and to repatriate the Montagnards comes a month after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung led a high-ranking delegation to Cambodia”. Dung made a three-day visit to Cambodia on November 14.

CCHR called on the government to refrain from putting human lives in peril “in exchange for political capital and financial gain”.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong rejected the claim. “No one has influence on Cambodia’s policy. We decided to close it down on our own,” he said.

By Cheang Sokha & Sebastian Strangio - The Phnom Penh Post - December 15, 2010