Cambodia is pressing ahead with a review of how its citizens are deported from the U.S.— even after the U.S. denied a request to suspend the current agreement—as advocates protest the practice of separating long-term U.S. residents from their families.
“Cambodia has established a working group to discuss with the U.S. concerning the [agreement] on repatriation,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said on Tuesday.
Officials from the ministries of interior and foreign affairs are involved, he said, but offered no further details.
The U.S. and Cambodia signed the current memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2002.
Since then, 538 Cambodians who were permanent residents of the U.S. have been deported after receiving felony convictions, according to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), an NGO that assists deportees upon their arrival in Cambodia.
“We need the people who want to come back to Cambodia,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said last week of Cambodians facing deportation from the U.S., many of whom have never lived in Cambodia and were born in Thai refugee camps. “If they don’t want to come back to Cambodia, we can’t receive them.”
The government is reviewing the current agreement with the U.S. out of humanitarian concerns after complaints from deportees and their families, General Sopheak said.
A proposal is being drafted and will be presented to the U.S., he said.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry asked the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh to renegotiate or temporarily suspend the agreement in October, but the U.S. Embassy said last month that the MoU remained “in force and unchanged.”
Kalvin Heng, who was deported from the U.S. in 2004, said he and his group, 1Love Cambodia, which advocates against deportations, have met with officials and proposed its own version of the MoU.
“We drafted a whole new MoU and gave it to the Cambodian side,” he said. The draft MoU included provisions that would only authorize “voluntary deportations,” he said. “Because it’s just not right to shoot somebody out of the country…and separate them from their families.”
“We were there [in the U.S.] as political refugees,” he added.
Both international law, which requires nations to accept their own citizens, and Cambodia’s limited diplomatic leverage over the U.S. would make any requests by the government to amend the MoU unlikely to succeed, said RISC adviser Bill Herod, who has been working with deportees in Cambodia for more than a decade.
“Under the Cambodian constitution, they are Cambodian citizens. They are not U.S. citizens,” Mr. Herod said last week. “Should the law be changed? Yes. Will it be changed? No.”
“If Cambodia continues to delay, if they don’t interview people [detained in the U.S. and facing deportation] and issue travel documents, the U.S. will go back to the style of 2002,” he said.
Before the MoU was signed that year, Mr. Herod explained, the U.S. pressured Cambodia to sign the agreement by threatening to suspend visas and halt international loans.
“Why go up against the U.S. government?” he said. “I don’t see the leverage or logic. I don’t see why the Cambodian government would pursue this.”