More than 100 Cambodian permanent residents have been detained by American immigration officials in a spate of round-ups over the past two weeks, even as Cambodia and the United States continue negotiations over the Kingdom’s reluctance to accept deported Cambodians who have been convicted of crimes.
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, an immigration policy manager at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, DC, said the organisation is tracking more than 100 Cambodians who have been arrested and sent to a detention centre in California in “one of the bigger round-ups” the group has seen.
“Many families are understandably distraught,” Mariategue said in an email. “Many have kids, are in fear of losing their homes, some have expressed thoughts of suicide.”
The US has been deporting Cambodian nationals convicted of felonies back to the Kingdom since 2002. The programme became a flashpoint in Cambodian-US relations after the Kingdom temporarily stopped accepting deportees, leading the US to impose visa sanctions on top Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials in August.
In retaliation, Prime Minister Hun Sen last month ordered the suspension of cooperation in the recovery of the remains of American servicemen missing in action since the Vietnam War.
A Ministry of Interior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, yesterday confirmed that the government was aware that roughly 100 Cambodians had been recently detained in the US, and said that Cambodian and US officials met last week to discuss the repatriation programme.
David Josar, spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, confirmed that representatives from the US and Cambodia met “recently” to continue discussions on the repatriations.
The programme has been criticised for being unfair to deportees, most of whom are refugees who were brought to the US as small children and have never been to Cambodia.
Bill Herod, the founder of the Phnom Penh-based Returnee Integration Support Center, said more than 560 Cambodian nationals have been deported to the Kingdom since the memorandum of understanding was signed in 2002.
“Some are doing very well. Some are going to court this afternoon for a street brawl. Some are in prison. Twenty-seven are dead,” Herod said. “All are getting a life sentence for the dumbest thing they did as a teenager.”
The dispute has caused concern at the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, whose chairman and CEO Ann Mills-Griffiths sent a letter to the prime minister last month saying it would be “personally disappointing” if the POW/MIA recovery programme was not reinstated, citing the “inaccurate perception that the United States is attempting to change your government”.
Hun Sen publicly responded with a letter on Saturday, stating that Cambodia had been “unjustly sanctioned” by the US.
In the letter, the premier said Cambodia “will resume this cooperation as soon as we receive credible and mutual assurance of lifting of suspension” of visas.
In a statement yesterday, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brendan Raedy said international law “obligates each country to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States”.
According to ICE, at least 534 potential deportees are waiting for travel documents from Cambodia, with some requests stretching back to 2008.
Additional reporting by Kong Meta