Announcing that more than 160,000 immigrants are living in Cambodia without proper documentation, the Interior Ministry on Friday said it would give the majority of the group an opportunity to stay in the country, while the opposition pushed for a blanket deportation.
The positions put forward by the ruling CPP, long criticized for weak enforcement of immigration laws, and the opposition CNRP, often accused of race-baiting for blaming social ills on Vietnamese people living in the country, come about a week before registration is set to begin for next year’s commune elections.
Launching a report on illegal immigrants, Sok Phal, head of the Interior Ministry’s general immigration department, told reporters that 160,000 foreign residents—mostly Vietnamese—were missing at least some of the documentation necessary to live in the country. But he said that most would be given a path to legal residency, if not full citizenship.
“We have divided them into types of foreign immigrants,” he said of those identified during a government census that was about 85 percent complete, adding that there were three categories of immigrants whose paperwork was incomplete.
The first group are those who have documents showing that they had lived in the country since at least the 1970s, the second are people who have documents from local officials allowing them to live in the country and the third are people with no documentation whatsoever.
“What is going to happen with those whom we have announced will be rejected in the near future?” General Phal said, referring to those who did not have full documentation.
“First, if they have no documents, they can voluntarily go to their original country. Second, if they have lived here for a long time—for example, if they have lived here for 30 years—they can submit applications as immigrants to stay for seven years for adults and three years for children. And if they volunteer to apply for citizenship, we will review those according to procedure,” he said.
Gen. Phal said a hard-line response would only be taken against those who never obtained any documents upon entering the country.
“The third group, who have entered our country without documents, we have to detain them and send them back to their original country,” he said. “For those with improper documents, we have to deny [their existing documents] and give them time.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann, however, said foreigners found to be living in the country without full documentation, including a royal decree confirming their citizenship, should be sent to their home country right away, in line with the law.
“If they do not have the proper documents, it means they are living here illegally; they should go back to their country,” Mr. Sovann said, adding that Cambodia could not afford a more tolerant process—such as that in force in the U.S.—that would allow for some illegal immigrants to apply to stay in the country.
“They are a rich country,” he said. “We are a very poor country. We have to go outside our country to find work, so it is a very different situation.”
The opposition also announced after a workshop at its Phnom Penh headquarters on Thursday that it would be deploying observers to voter registration centers in the coming weeks to ensure that only those with proper documentation were being signed up to vote.
“The party will prepare observers at the voter registration office to monitor the process of registration and will file complaints about irregularities, including any foreigners that use the Khmer identity to illegally register,” the CNRP said in a statement.
Mr. Sovann said the party’s position toward immigrants and plans for monitoring voter registration were not meant to specifically target Vietnamese immigrants.
“We are talking about the law. We don’t discriminate against anybody,” he said.
“In every country you can see a lot of problems about the border,” he said, noting that the government also sent a stern letter to Vietnam last week over various border incursions. “We have to be careful about defending our country.”
In that diplomatic complaint from Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its counterpart in Vietnam, the government recounts numerous cases of Vietnam violating border agreements between the countries.
The letter lists incursions including Vietnam digging irrigation ponds and constructing a road in Ratanakkiri province, building government or military offices in Mondolkiri and Kandal provinces, and building a road in Svay Rieng province and a border gate in Takeo province. The letter refers to various diplomatic notes dating to 2010.
“Through the spirit and meaning of notes and letters mentioned above, the Royal Government of Cambodia has requested that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam please reaffirm that it has halted building activity immediately,” says the letter, which comes before a meeting of the countries’ Joint Border Committee next week.
“Take measures to prohibit people from Vietnam to come to farm or do any activity at the border area that has not been” fully demarcated, it continues, adding that the countries are preparing a joint request for France to help resolve outstanding border disputes.
CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann said he believed resolving the border disputes through diplomatic notes had already proven futile.
“We have seen the Cambodian government has sent lots of diplomatic notes on violations along the border, but has yet to get any positive results,” he said.
“It is time to find an arbitrator such as the U.N. and International Court of Justice or a third country because Cambodia is a small country, and is weak economically and militarily.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)