Cambodia set out its case yesterday in the row with the US over repatriating people convicted of crimes after Washington slapped travel bans on senior officials.
The US said Cambodia did not want to take back the deportees but the Foreign Ministry said this was not the case.
“Cambodia has never rejected the repatriations, but we need to interview those people first to know if they are really Khmer,” Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said yesterday, adding that some deportees arriving in Cambodia had been from Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Mr Sokhonn said more than 20 deportees from the US had died since 2002 because of sickness and four had committed suicide because they lost hope and found it impossible to live in Cambodia while their families were in US.
Many of the people deported from the US are the children of refugees who fled the genocide in the 1970s, a lot of them born in refugee camps in Thailand who then grew up in the US.
Because of the hardships and difficulties these people faced when deported to a country where they did not speak the language and had no family or relatives, the Cambodian government has asked US officials to review the deportation policy.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last night hit back at the US over the visa restrictions and said he would impose restrictions of his own.
“Cambodia will suspend cooperation with US to find the missing remains of US soldiers who died in Cambodia during the war and the Foreign Affairs Ministry will send a diplomatic note to the US soon over this issue,” Mr Hun Sen said last night.
He said about 80 US soldiers went missing in Cambodia and only 40 had been found.
“So the cooperation of finding them has to be temporarily suspended,” he said, adding that he was also waiting to resolve other matters between Cambodia and the US.
The Prime Minister said that while he wanted a resolution on the issue of visas for Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials which the US has suspended, consideration must also be given to the inhumane repatriation of those convicted of crimes in the US, an action which he stressed, will split up families.
General Hun Manith, the general director of the General Directorate of Intelligence said on his Facebook page that deportees from the US faced enormous difficulties adjusting to life in Cambodia, a country they had never known.
Mr Manith added that some of the deportees were born in refugee camps and could not speak Khmer because they had been in the US since they were young.
“They get deported because they have committed an offence in the US and then their families are divided forever because they cannot go back,” he said.
“When arriving in Cambodia, they cannot get employed because many of them have tattoos and who would dare take those people in if they were known to be involved with crime or were drug addicts?” Mr Manith asked, adding that unemployment caused some of them to commit more crimes.
“A total of 48 of these people are in jail in Cambodia and four committed suicide,” he said.
“People who were repatriated received only $320 to make a new life in Cambodia. How can they live?”
During a speech at the Royal School of Administration yesterday, Mr Sokhonn said Cambodians convicted of crimes in the US were being deported after serving their sentences, adding that these people received a double punishment.
Mr Sokhonn said he considered the visa restrictions imposed on Wednesday as unfair to Cambodia because the kingdom had never declined to accept the deportees and added that his ministry had sent a diplomatic note to the US Embassy on Wednesday to clarify the issue.
“We still think that this issue is an injustice for Cambodia, so we will continue to seek clarification,” Mr Sokhonn said.
He added that Cambodia had officials from the Interior Ministry prepared to interview the last 26 Cambodians waiting to be deported from the US.
On Wednesday, his ministry released a statement calling on the US government to reconsider its decision on the visa restrictions to promote friendly relations and good cooperation between the countries.
The visa restrictions affect Foreign Ministry officials from the level of director-general up to Mr Sokhonn.
The visa restrictions were in line with US Homeland Security rules applying to a country that refused to accept or was unreasonably delaying the return of its nationals.
The US embassy in Phnom Penh suspended issuing travelling and business visas such as B1, B2 and B1/B2 visas for ministry officials.
A1 visas are for meetings and G1 visas for missions and other officials at various ministries are not affected.
Mr Sokhonn, meanwhile, received a US visa on Wednesday to join a UN conference in New York next week.
This year Cambodia has agreed to receive 34 deportees, however only eight have been repatriated so far. From 2002 until last year, 566 people were forced to return to Cambodia.
Article 32 of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees says the contracting states shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory, save on grounds of national security or public order.
“We were accused of being late and avoiding receiving our nationals,” Mr Manith said, adding that a new proposed agreement was almost done. “Now they imposed visa sanctions on officials who are not involved in this issue.
Mr Manith pointed out that many people around the world had criticised the deportations, including Cambodian communities in the US and US senators.
The Cambodian government had also asked the US not to repatriate people who had been granted refugee status, older people and those with chronic illnesses.
He added that the government also asked the US to establish a vocational training centre to teach deportees the Cambodian language, life skills and specialist skills so they can live on their own and start a new life after integrating into Cambodian society.
Lt. General Hun Manet who heads the defense ministry’s counter terrorism department and who regularly travels to the US to visit Cambodian communities said many people there asked him to convince the government not to accept Cambodian deportees.
Some blamed the Cambodian government for accepting the deportees, which they said caused families to separate.
“They said that if the government did not accept them, the US would not deport them back to Cambodia, and they could stay with their families in the US,” he said.
A US State Department official who was asked to comment on the issue said that imposing visa sanctions on Cambodia was in response to its repeated failure to issue travel documents for individuals under their final order of removal, or deportation.
“We believe that this step is therefore required at this time with the hope Cambodia will cooperate on removals,” the official said, adding that visas that had not expired would continue to be valid.
“We look forward to working with the Cambodian government to resolve this issue quickly,” the official added, saying the US considered all options at its disposal, taking into account complex bilateral relationships, foreign policy priorities and other extenuating circumstances.
Chhang Song, who was former president Lon Nol’s last minister of information and who has lived in California, supported stopping the deportations.
He said that the US could pass a law to favour Cambodians who violated the law on humanitarian grounds, to enable them to stay in the US and not be deported to live in a country they did not know.