About 400 parishioners at the Christian Evangelical International Ministry in Phnom Penh were singing hymns when 15 armed police officers rushed through the doors on Saturday and rounded up all of the Nigerian men present, according to Peter Ike, a preacher’s assistant at the church.
Police demanded to see passports and working visas on the spot, he said, and despite pleas from the men to allow their families to retrieve the documents, those who failed to produce them were forced into waiting police vans.
“They come with intimidation, with guns. This harassment is too much,” Mr. Ike said, adding that he knew that many of the men who were detained had valid passports and visas.
“If somebody comes to say ‘You must follow me’ when there is no crime, when there is no report of any crime, then it is unfair,” he said.
Mr. Ike was joined Monday by the head of an association of Nigerians in Cambodia in decrying the targeting of a place of worship for an immigration raid.
Abayomi Koledoye, president of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO) in Cambodia, called the arrests “unacceptable.”
“Rounding up Nigerians during a church session is totally unacceptable, it is a complete disregard to freedom [of] worship,” Mr. Koledoye said in an email.
“Church is not a working place that you should come and be asking for valid passport or work permit, those people have houses and places of work.”
Of the 45 men who were detained by police on Saturday, only 16 were found to be living in the country illegally, according to Uk Heisela, head of investigations at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department.
“There are 16 we will deport after we receive the letter from the Interior Minister…. Thirteen were released but we fined them $125 each because they did not have correct paperwork,” Major General Heisela said, adding that the other 16 men had produced valid documentation and were released without penalty.
Maj. Gen. Heisela said that police had been monitoring some of the Nigerians.
“We know they are living illegally as they always leave the house by going out the back,” he said. “Some were teachers and some were football players. If they don’t have a job they might be committing crimes.”
One of the men who was apprehended at the church and later released, a 45-year-old who gave his name only as Kingsley, said he was worried about how the arrests would change the way that Cambodians from the church viewed Nigerians there.
“We are foreigners here and when you are in a foreign country what do you expect? You have to make sure you are legally there,” he said. “Maybe those that are in trouble are the Khmers…. They all look up to us.”