Sixty-five Afghans and Pakistanis arrested after their Indonesian-owned logging vessel was seized in Sihanoukville last month have voluntarily returned to their home countries, an immigration official said Wednesday.
The would-be immigrants were part of a group of 256 Central Asian asylum-seekers being kept in Phnom Penh’s Thai San Hotel while authorities here decide what to do with them.
The 65 left in three groups starting at the end of July, said Youn Chhunly, chief of the Foreign Police Department of the Ministry of Interior. Seven of the group who allegedly were ringleaders of the human smuggling have been jailed, he said.
“There are still 191 more immigrants that we will send home step by step, but we need to wait for [the International Organization for Migration] to finish the paperwork,” Youn Chhunly said.
The International Organization for Migration is a Geneva-based nonprofit organization that assists with the immigrants’ food, shelter and health needs. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has not determined how many of the exiles will apply for refugee status, said John Farvolden, officer in charge of the commissioner’s Phnom Penh office.
UN officers have held group meetings to explain the asylum process and have begun interviewing the asylum-seekers individually, employing Farsi and Urdu translators, Farvolden said.
The asylum-seekers each paid between $5,000 and $8,000 to human traffickers, who promised to send them to Australia, an IOM employee told Agence France-Presse. Apparently the traffickers had tried to stop off in Indonesia but were diverted by Indonesian military patrols, the employee said. The vessel lacked enough food for a voyage to Australia.
IOM program officer Jette Bjerre Kjertum said Tuesday the migrants’ cases are being handled by the Ministry of Interior, the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and by her organization.
Many of the Afghans are Shiite Muslims from Afghanistan’s north, where the reactionary Muslim Taliban have imposed laws banning television, cinema and music and severely reduced women’s rights to education and employment.
(Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)