Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong told reporters on Friday that the facility would be closed on February 15, after the government said in a letter to the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last month that the centre would be closed by January 1.

“It is time for us to close the refugee centre because Vietnam has no war or armed conflict, and it is not necessary to have the refugee centre in our country,” Hor Namhong said.

“If there is no third country to accept them, they will be deported back to Vietnam, and I think this is a simple problem.”

Of the 76 Montagnards living at the centre, 62 have been granted refugee status, allowing them to be resettled in a third country.

“We cannot say whether the UNHCR will process those 62 Montagnards on time according to the deadline we have given,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said yesterday.

“I think they will have appropriate time to process those people, but whether they can process those people or not depends on them.”

Kitty McKinsey, Asia spokeswoman for the UNHCR, told Agence France Presse on Friday that she had not received official word on the extension of the deadline, but that she welcomed the development.

“That would give us the extra time we need to find long-term solutions for those 62 Montagnards,” she said.

The government has previously stated that the 14 non-refugees at the centre will be deported following its closure, and Hor Namhong did not specify whether they might yet earn refugee status under the extended deadline. Koy Kuong said he was “not sure” about this issue.

Toshi Kawauchi, the UNHCR’s head of office in Phnom Penh, referred questions yesterday to McKinsey, who could not be reached. McKinsey has previously declined to comment on the status of the 14 Montagnards, citing a policy of not discussing pending asylum cases.

In December of last year, the government deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China at the apparent behest of Beijing, over objections from the United States. Days afterward, China finalised agreements offering the Kingdom US$1.2 billion in assistance.

“Would we rather take Chinese tourists, who visit Cambodia and spend money in our country, or Chinese refugees?” Hor Namhong said Friday, following the return of Prime Minister Hun Sen from a state visit to China.

“It is easy to consider this simple point of view.”

By Vong Sokheng - The Phnom Penh Post - December 19, 2010