Almost two weeks after their arrival from the US, the government has not released 11 Cambodian deportees from an immigration department near Pochentong Airport.
The Cambodians arrived Sept 19 after deportation under an agreement that allows the US to return Cambodians without US citizenship who are convicted of aggravated felonies.
“We don’t understand why these returning citizens are being treated differently than any other Cambodian,” said Bill Herod, coordinator of the Returnee Assistance Project. “They have not been charged with any crime and we see no legal basis for their detention.”
Herod said he made formal offers to the government to provide temporary housing, language training and job placement to the deportees, but “there has been no response to that offer.”
“Their continued detention raises concern among their families in the States that they are being held, essentially, for ransom,” Herod said. “As one family member put it in an e-mail, ‘detention is very costly’”—a reference to claims by some relatives that the government demands money from the deportees and their families in the US and Cambodia.
One source close to the situation said, “Sometimes the immigration officials ask for $20 for the returnees [held at the Pochentong Foreign Immigration Department] to use the phone.”
The source said the alleged bribe-taking was done by low-level immigration officials, not the Ministry of Interior or any high-ranking official.
Immigration officials strongly denied the accusations on Sunday.
“We are not detaining them—we are just placing them in a transitional place until their families come to sign documents so we can release them,” said Chorn Vutha, deputy director of the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Immigration .
The immigration department cannot release the 11 from custody until their families in Cambodia sign them out and agree to sponsor them, he said.
Chorn Vutha denied that immigration officials have demanded bribes from the deportees or their families, saying, “I am very strict and do not allow my officers to order bribes,” adding that police have provided the deportees with food and even money for haircuts because “the deportees don’t have any money.”
An official with the US Embassy on Sunday said the US is no longer responsible for deportees once they enter Cambodia.
“We deliver them to Cambodia—it’s really their responsibility from there,” the official said. “I hope the Cambodian government will treat them with respect and give them as much assistance as possible.”
The US has now returned 17 Cambodians under the pact signed in March, which could affect 1,400 Cambodians living in the US.