Municipal and military police raided two Russei Keo district homes Saturday, arresting a total of 226 illegal Chinese immigrants authorities say are part of a lucrative human smuggling ring allegedly run, in part, by high-ranking Cambodian officials.
The latest sweep, organized by Phnom Penh’s First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara, marks the second time since late August that a large group of Chinese nationals suspected of not having travel papers has been arrested in the capital.
It remains unclear if any of these 226 Chinese had travel documents. Documents of some kind and telephone numbers relating to the Chinese were found along with a strong box in one of the houses, Chea Sophara said. He said he did not know what was inside the safe, which will be opened later this week.
In August 225 Chinese nationals were arrested in a Tuol Kok house—though several later escaped—and 28 more were arrested in a house in Chamkar Mon district.
Government officials admit Cambodia is a “major” gateway for illegal Chinese nationals traveling to third and fourth countries, and acknowledge that Cambodian officials are involved in the trade, which brings in thousands of dollars a month, according to officials.
One of the houses where police found Chinese Saturday is owned by an immigration police officer, Chea Sophara said Sunday. The other is owned by an RCAF colonel, though it is unclear if the two are involved at all in the smuggling.
“They have not been arrested yet, as we must find out their involvement,” Chea Sophara said.
While both Deputy Director General of National Police Teng Savong and Deputy Municipal Police Chief Bith Kim Hong said Sunday they expected this latest group of Chinese to be deported without standing trial, Chea Sophara maintained the Chinese should be prosecuted for breaking Cambodia’s immigration laws.
The 217 Chinese nationals remaining from the Aug 19 arrest were deported without a trial in September, sparking this latest debate over prosecuting large groups of illegal immigrants found in Cambodia. Though Article 29 of Cambodia’s immigration law prohibits entering the country without valid travel documents, officials have been reluctant to send the Chinese to court.
Those opposed to the idea of a trial say they are protecting diplomatic ties with China and other nations where Cambodian nationals without travel papers are detained. But others, including Chea Sophara, say these officials are only protecting other senior government figures who are allegedly making money from human trafficking.
“They should go to court. Then we would find out who is behind this,” Chea Sophara said.
This latest group of Chinese—145 men and 81 women—were taken to immigration police headquarters and the municipal immigration police department shortly after their arrest.
Immigration police headquarters is now under the guard of municipal police, who will be at the compound near Pochentong Airport 24 hours a day, according to an immigration police officer who said his department no longer has jurisdiction over the prisoners.
The compound has been the scene of one arson and another suspicious fire, both apparently meant to destroy papers documenting the travel of foreigners inside Cambodia. The first fire, which destroyed one of the compound’s buildings, was started four days after the first large group of Chinese were brought there. The second occurred in September and did little damage. Both are still under investigation.