More than 250 Afghans, Pakistani, Iranians and Indonesians suspected of being illegal immigrants were arrested Sunday in Sihanoukville as they were headed to Australia and New Zealand, authorities said.
Two Indonesians and three Pakistanis among the 253 arrested are suspected of organizing the human smuggling scheme, said Tak Vantha, deputy military police chief for Sihanoukville. The immigrants were to be taken to a third country on an Indonesian fishing boat that had illegally entered Cambodian waters.
It is the first time Cambodian authorities have detained such a large number of immigrants in a human smuggling scam, Tak Vantha said.
“The boat can sneak into the port because the smugglers colluded with low-ranking officials,” Tak Vantha said.
Australian Ambassador Louise Hand said authorities deserved praise for taking decisive action.
“It’s very encouraging for the long term that Cambodia decided not to be part of this transnational crime,” Hand said. “This business of smuggling people exposes them to terrible dangers. The smugglers are very unscrupulous people.”
Sihanoukville police spotted the group of mostly men at about 1 am Sunday, as they were going to head to a third country on a wooden fishing boat. The group included 11 women and 14 children.
The immigrants, some of whom had been living in Cambodia for a few months, are now staying at the Thai Sann Hotel in Phnom Penh after traveling here Sunday night.
The International Organization for Migration is providing logistical support to the immigrants and working with Cambodian authorities to determine what to do with the group. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees will determine the status of the immigrants, Hand said.
A UNHCR official said the organization has not yet gotten involved in the case and said he was unaware whether any of the arrested had UNHCR protection status or refugee status.
Youn Chhunly, of the Foreigner Police Department for the Ministry of Interior, said authorities would question the immigrants one by one to see who organized the scheme. After questioning, authorities will cooperate with the IOM, ideally to send the immigrants back to their homelands, Youn Chhunly said.
Conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries have created a surge in the number of people fleeing from those countries. Cambodia is seen as a transit point for smugglers to transport immigrants to a third country.