The government yesterday maintained it was opening a path to citizenship for roughly 70,000 ethnic Vietnamese people living in Cambodia, though many have lived here for generations, and advocates say a current drive to revoke “irregular” government documents is effectively rendering many stateless.
Officials described the plan yesterday at the year-end meeting of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration Department. Nouv Leakhena, deputy head of immigration, said the government recognises that many members of the oft-marginalised group have lived in Cambodia since before the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Some of them, for 30 years, 29 years, they have no home or accommodation in Vietnam,” Leakhena said. The department, he added, “cannot be nationalistic. We must respect international law too.”
As the government continues a program to revoke documentation from thousands of ethnically Vietnamese residents – many of whom say the only time they’ve spent in Vietnam is a brief sojourn during the Khmer Rouge regime – officials yesterday said they plan to issue two-year residency documents to ethnic Vietnamese who can prove they arrived in Cambodia before 2012.
At the meeting, immigration chief Sok Phal said the system would be similar to the green cards afforded to immigrants in countries like the US or Canada.
“Not everybody will be recognised,” Leakhena said. “When they apply, we have to check them. But most of them, I think they can.”
The move was welcomed by Moeun Tola, the director of migrant rights group Central, though he noted that “there are several things we need to think about”.
A chief concern is whether they will be allowed to become citizens, according to Tola.
He pointed to similar registration drives in Thailand and Malaysia where undocumented residents were encouraged to register but not ultimately allowed to become citizens, meaning that they never achieved certain rights.
Lyma Nguyen, an Australian human rights lawyer who represented ethnic Vietnamese civil parties at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, voiced concerns about the recent purges of “irregular” documents held by ethnic Vietnamese.
Many of those documents should be recognised as legal and help bolster legitimate claims that the ethnic Vietnamese should have been given citizenship generations ago under the immigration law at the time, according to Nguyen.
“[The government] needs to deal with people on an individual basis and look at their individual situation, the family situation and community ties in Cambodia,” she said. “These are issues that must be worked on an individual basis.”
Leakhena yesterday stressed that granting citizenship was not the department’s main focus, although immigration officials said yesterday that ethnic Vietnamese who get residency cards may apply for citizenship after seven years, in line with the country’s citizenship law.
“Now, we are not thinking about nationality. We are thinking about the management of immigrants in Cambodia,” Leakhena said.
Separately, immigration officials also announced a crackdown on foreign workers who do not pay taxes or possess work permits, after calculating that the government lost out on $23 million in revenue last year as a result.
Leakhena said all business owners with foreign workers will have one month’s time – starting on Thursday – to obtain work permits.
“After that, if they still don’t respect the law, maybe we need to expel them,” Leakhena said.
Most of the illegal workers are Chinese, officials said at the meeting yesterday. In recent years, the influx of Chinese investment and workers into Cambodia has changed the landscape in places like Sihanoukville, where authorities and businesspeople have complained of criminality and adverse effects to the local economy.
At the meeting yesterday, Preah Sihanouk Deputy Provincial Police Chief Hun Sorithy complained that Chinese immigrants were overwhelming local authorities – allegedly with the blessing of other local authorities.
“When we go out to do surveys, we cannot control how many are staying here because some of the owners of the companies are not small potatoes,” he said. “They do not cooperate and they say that they know two-star or three-star generals, while we are only one-stars.”
According to the department’s report, immigration officials arrested and deported more than 1,880 illegal immigrants last year, of 47 different nationalities, the vast majority of whom were Vietnamese or Chinese.