When the International Organization for Migration (IOM) agreed to help Cambodia with a controversial refugee resettlement plan earlier this year, it did so on the condition that the government furnish the refugees already in the country with the paperwork they need to find employment.
That was nearly four months ago, and refugees who agreed to move to Cambodia under a deal the government signed with Australia in September have already arrived. But refugees who have been here for years are still waiting for the residency documents they are entitled to under Cambodia’s own legislation—and the government is lying about it.
“Nobody has received their residency documents yet, not one,” said Denise Coghlan, who, as head of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Cambodia, works with the majority of refugees who come to the country. She said there were about 60 in Cambodia at the moment.
By law, Ms. Coghlan said, the refugee papers the government issues after approving applications for asylum should to be enough for any employer in the country.
“In reality, it’s not accepted,” she said, forcing most refugees to eke out a living with menial, irregular and informal jobs and what little the NGOs helping them can afford to provide.
The IOM was well aware of the problem when, in February, it agreed to help Cambodia resettle refugees that Australia is holding on the South Pacific island of Nauru under the agreement signed last year.
As a condition of helping Cambodia, the IOM said in February, it insisted that the refugees coming from Nauru receive all the legal documents they need to find work, and that the provision of those documents be “efficient.” Not to leave anyone out, it said it also insisted that the refugees already in Cambodia get the same deal.
The IOM says Cambodia agreed to its conditions in a letter, but the organization has refused to release a copy, citing its policy not to share confidential correspondence.
The first four refugees on Nauru to volunteer to resettle in Cambodia arrived in Phnom Penh less than two weeks ago. Courtesy of the Australian government, they have been lavished with thousands of dollars each, put up in a spacious villa, and promised personal bank accounts and all essential living expenses for at least a year.
On Tuesday, IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry said the Cambodian government had already issued a decree granting residency status to the four, adding that their residency cards were “in the works.”
As for the dozens of refugees who are here already, he said residency cards for them were “also under preparation. However, we are not in control of the timeline.”
“[W]e strongly believe that existing refugees should benefit from our settlement program to the extent possible,” he said.
Cambodia claims that the 60-odd refugees have been issued residency cards already.
“We recently issued residency cards to those people,” Kerm Sarin, who heads the immigration department’s refugee office, said in an interview late last month. “Those refugees have already received ID cards, and they are now working in private companies.”
They should have had them a long time ago. Refugees are guaranteed the right to residency cards by a sub-decree signed by both Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2009.
But according to Ms. Coghlan, the refugees, and a local small business owner who has hired refugees in the past, they still do not have the cards.
One refugee who has been in Phnom Penh for several years said he had not received a residency card and had neither seen nor heard of any effort by the government to give him one.
“I don’t see anything,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities.
“In Western countries, a refugee is considered a permanent resident; in Cambodia, no.” Here, he said, “I am in limbo.”
Besides those in the country’s notoriously dangerous construction sector, he said, employers were reluctant to hire refugees with only their refugee papers.
“I found one restaurant job,” he said, “but they refused me because I have no residency documents.”
He said JRS staff stepped in and tried convincing the owner to give him the job, but to no avail. He gets by selling snacks from a small cart he pushes around the city and has to pay off a variety of authorities on a daily and monthly basis for the privilege.
He has been unable to open a bank account. When he saved up enough to buy a motorbike, a JRS employee had to make the purchase for him.
He said the other refugees he knows in Cambodia—some have been here for 10 years or more—were in the same situation.
“The refugee department has no system” for dealing with refugees, he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the government’s failure to furnish the refugees with residency cards was further proof that it was neglecting them.
“It’s really shameful that this situation has been allowed to drag on this long. Condemning refugees to live in a legal limbo where they cannot open a bank account or get a decent job demonstrates the depth of the government’s lack of care for refugees it has agreed to protect.”
Mr. Robertson said the privileged treatment being shown to the refugees from Nauru risked entrenching a two-tier system of refugee protection in the country.
“If the existing…refugees in Cambodia before the Australia deal are not covered by the deal and receive the rights and benefits from it, then it drains away one of the last few remaining arguments for actually doing this deal,” he said.
“IOM is absolutely on the hook for ensuring the Cambodia government promise is fulfilled to include all the existing refugees, and if Phnom Penh reneges on what should be a non-negotiable commitment, then IOM should admit that it was lied to and head for the exit on this deal.”
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)