After years away from their homeland, more Cambodians are returning every year to visit with family, reunite with friends and see the country they fled.
But some of these visitors have been leaving the country with an insult to accompany the visa stamp on their passports, forced to pay an “exit fee” to the immigration police at Pochentong Airport before their passports are returned.
“This is becoming a phenomena, a major issue,” said Kao Kim Hourn, whose brother was charged $5 for each member of his family after visiting from the US. He said he has heard several stories of people being charged up to $10 when leaving from Pochentong.
Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth said he also has received complaints of Cambodians living abroad being charged more than the $20 fee for a tourist visa when arriving in Cambodia.
Officials at Pochentong Airport and the Ministry of Interior acknowledge the practices go on, but say there is little they can do to control it.
Sok Sambaur, director of the airport, says he cannot stop the unofficial fees. “It’s up to the immigration department, and we have no control over them,” he said. “They shouldn’t do that. They do it illegally.”
He said the problem has been brought up at monthly meetings on airport issues, “but nothing has been solved. Those people keep doing that and they are not punished.”
A senior official at the Ministry of Interior said immigration police working at the airport have been told they will be fired for extorting travelers. Yet, he said, the problem continues.
Kao Kim Hourn, who is the executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said he dropped his brother off at Pochentong Airport, but did not learn of the “exit fee” until several days later when he e-mailed his brother to ask about the flight home.
This was the second time Kao Kim Hourn’s brother had been extorted for money by police while traveling in Cambodia. In Battambang province, his family had to pay $50 for an “entry visa” to the province. Other families traveling into Battambang reported similar experiences.
Veng Sereyvuth said he was assured by the governor of Battambang that the province is cracking down on the extortion. To promote tourism in Cambodia, “of course we want that stopped,” he said.
Veng Sereyvuth said a new visa policy for Cambodians living abroad should cut down on problems at the airport.
The Council of Ministers recently approved a subdecree that, if signed by the prime minister, would waive entrance fees to the country for Cambodian-born people holding foreign passports and allow them to extend their visas indefinitely. Veng Sereyvuth said he hopes the measure will take effect before 2000.
The senior Interior official suggested travelers who encounter such problems at the airport write a letter to the immigration police detailing the date and time of the incident. With that information, he said, authorities can pinpoint which officers were responsible.
Most often the police seem to be targeting Cambodians living in other countries, Sok Sambaur said. “Maybe they think those people living abroad have more money and might be generous enough to help them out,” he said.
Tan Sotho, managing director of Hanuman Tourism, said Cambodians are probably targeted because they speak Khmer and the police can easily make their demands understood.
People traveling alone, rather than with a tour group, are also more likely to be asked for money, she said.
Sometimes there is little a traveler can do except open his wallet, especially when a flight out of the country is waiting, one airline official said.
“Well, it’s just a small contribution to the economy,” he quipped. “Think of it that way.”