After interrupting a church service Sunday to detain 57 possible visa offenders, mostly Africans, police officials denied that they were targeting a specific group for the immigration checks.
“We have done this action as usual, but not as big as this time…. We usually check [visa and passport] in any foreign companies or restaurants,” Hy Pru, municipal deputy police chief in charge of foreigners, said on Wednesday. “We are checking all nationalities but we found [Africans] the most.”
Mr Pru said many foreigners from different nationalities have been caught with expired paperwork—most of whom have been deported—but he could not elaborate on their nationalities.
The latest raid took place on Sunday during a service at Christ Embassy Church in Tuol Svay Prey I commune in Chamkar Mon district, Mr Pru said. Forty-two people were released after proving they had valid passports and visas, he added.
Mr Pru said that the 15 are still detained because their visas had expired. He added he documented and sent the 15 to the Immigration Department, although he did not know what would happen to them next.
“We are waiting for further instruction,” he said.
The police raided the church because neighbors complained about the noise during services and because it did not have a permit from the district governor, Mr Pru said on Monday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said on Tuesday that it is normal for countries to check for expired visas and paperwork.
“It is our right to check passports,” he said.
He also denied that racism plays a part when officials check for valid visas. As for the numerous recent instances of arrests of African nationals, especially Nigerians, Mr Sopheak said it has been a coincidence.
“The people recently expelled have committed mistakes against the people and the country of Cambodia,” he said.
The church’s pastor, Prince Lenee Lahben, said on Wednesday that around 20 police officers came to the church at around 11:30 am and demanded to see everyone’s documentation. He added that police visited the church once before for excessive noise, but since then the church has put glass in the windows and installed air conditioners to help seal in the sounds.
“I sense an atom of racism in what happened on Sunday,” Mr Lahben said.
He said the police detained people inside of the church for close to five hours while families and friends brought their passports to the church.
He now worries about the future of the church. After gaining certification from the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, Mr Lahben said, he is in the process of registering with the Ministry of Cults and Religion and getting a memorandum of understanding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to certify that the church is an NGO. But he now fears the raid will derail the process. His landlady and the church’s followers have also become nervous with being associated with the church, he added.
Gabriel Ken Gadaffi, president of the Nigerian Community Service Association, said Sunday’s incident was appalling and embarrassing to the Nigerian community in Cambodia. Mr Gadaffi said the people detained by police were well treated but that the generalized checks of African nationals is “dehumanizing.”
He points to the fact that only 15 of the 57 had exceeded their visas as proof that the majority of Africans living in Cambodia are here legally.
“The majority had valid documents,” he said. “If an individual breaks the law, they should deal with the individual instead of generalizing a whole group.”