Dozens of Chinese immigrants detained since Aug 19 in Phnom Penh for breaking immigration laws were deported in secrecy to China from the capital’s military airbase Thursday morning, officials said.
National Police Director General Hok Lundy and Immigration Police Chief Prok Saroeun both said 217 Chinese nationals left on two specially chartered flights from the base adjacent to Pochentong Airport following the Chinese Embassy’s request last week to return them without trial.
The number of passengers could not be independently confirmed as armed men kept journalists outside the airfield and prevented reporters from observing the boarding of the two China Southern Airlines aircraft. No flight lists or manifests were provided to the media.
The more than 200 Chinese had been scheduled to appear in Municipal Court on Monday, but the hearing was canceled, with judicial officials claiming the court was not prepared to proceed. Article 29 of the immigration law dictates that foreigners who illegally enter Cambodia face three to six months in jail.
Enforcing the media blackout, a cavalcade of Flying Tiger and Interior Ministry police accompanied the seven trucks of Chinese nationals on the short drive from Immigration Police Headquarters to the airbase at 9 am.
Shortly after 10 am two China Southern Airlines jets landed at the airbase. After refueling and taking on passengers, the two airplanes departed 11:30 am.
Indicative of the secretive nature of the operation was that National Police Deputy Director General Teng Savong was seen by journalists arriving at the military airbase, but when contacted by telephone inside the airport, he denied knowledge of the deportation, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.
First Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh Chea Sophara and several top Interior Ministry officials have alleged that the systematic trafficking of Chinese nationals through Cambodia en route to Western nations earns tens of thousands of dollars monthly for powerful government officials, including some with the National Police and a diplomat posted abroad.
For the second day in a row, Hok Lundy said the month-long debacle involving the 200-plus Chinese immigrants threatened Phnom Penh’s relations with Beijing. “If we did not solve this problem at their request, there would be difficulty,” he said.
Minister of Cabinet Sok An, returning Thursday from a trip abroad with Prime Minister Hun Sen just an hour after the two Chinese planes departed, explained the deportation by pointing out that neighboring countries have problems with Cambodian nationals entering illegally.
“We also have our people in some neighboring countries like in Vietnam, Thailand and in Malaysia….I think they will not go to the courts in those countries. We try to solve this in a very peaceful way,” Sok An told reporters, adding that Prime Minister Hun Sen was consulted and played a key role in deciding to give in to the request from Beijing.
A senior Chinese diplomat said Thursday the embassy requested the return of 218 illegal immigrants, but one of the detainees turned out to have a valid Chinese passport and visa and was released by Cambodian authorities two days ago.
Reiterating the 217 deported Chinese were the real victims, the Chinese diplomat said the traffickers must be caught.
“They were cheated by the organizers….They are all victims of the same group of traffickers, these organizers are the main ones we want to identify,” the diplomat said, adding that the deported Chinese likely would not be punished when they arrived in China.
Hok Lundy said he did not know the final destination of the two airplanes other than they were going back to China. But an immigration police officer at Pochentong Airport said the two planes were destined for Guangzhou in southern China.
An officer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday that the future of the illegal immigrants was unclear once they reached China. “If they were not politically active in China, then there shouldn’t be too much of a problem…but we are not exactly sure what will happen to them in China,” she said.
While the officer said she had tried to contact the Chinese, she was only able to speak with court officials involved with the case who told her none of the immigrants were asking for political asylum. “But maybe they received instruction from their leaders not to talk,” the officer said.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)