Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has ordered a sweep of border provinces for illegal Chinese immigrants, Ministry of Interior officials said Thursday.
Sar Kheng also said he’s been informed that some illegal Chinese are being harbored in garment factories, particularly in Kandal province, which abuts Phnom Penh, officials said.
The directive, made to provincial governors, came one day after a high-level meeting between Sar Kheng and US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann on the issue of illegal Chinese passing through Cambodia to third and fourth nations.
During that meeting, Sar Kheng said Cambodia was a major conduit for illegal immigrants and became the government’s highest-ranking official to acknowledge the existence of what has been called a widespread human smuggling ring run by Cambodians, according to people present. According to Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak, an unknown number of illegal Chinese evaded the Aug 19 police swoop that netted 225 illegal immigrants at a Tuol Kok residence.
Those that escaped are thought to be hiding in garment factories in Kandal province and at other locations in border provinces, he asserted, adding that Sar Kheng has asked authorities to arrest escapees and check identification of other workers.
“Provincial authorities must be highly vigilant about immigrants,” and send back known infiltrators, he said.
Interior Ministry General Sau Phan confirmed Thursday that Sar Kheng issued the directive but downplayed its aggressiveness, characterizing it as part of a routine investigation.
Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturer’s Association, said Thursday that he was not concerned by the pending sweep, which he said was unnecessary. Tan said it was unrealistic that the factories would employ illegal Chinese.
“One of the reasons garment factories come here is the abundance of labor. Why would a factory need illegal immigrants?”
Stating that the government cannot afford to provide food for jailed illegal immigrants, Sar Kheng asked border police to keep the immigrants the catch from reaching Phnom Penh, Sau Phan said, adding it is “hard for the government to provide for them.”
Most of them are being held at Immigration Police headquarters near Pochentong Airport.
Teng Savong, deputy director general of National Police and head of the investigation into the 225 illegals, said Tuesday that the Interior Ministry has handed over the responsibility of feeding them to a locally based Chinese tour operator because the government could not afford it.
According to So Vandy, deputy chief of the Municipal Immigration Police, a representative from the Veng Hong Tour Company is providing food for the illegals, set for trial Monday.
The illegal immigrants consume 150 kgs of rice, vegetables and meat each day, a member of the immigration police said Monday at the detention center.
“We had to look for a dealer who could provide all the services for sending them out of Cambodia and back to China.
Information about this set-up was sent to the Ministry of Interior for advice and approved by Sar Kheng,” Teng Savong claimed.
However, two advisers for Sar Kheng contacted Tuesday said they were unaware their boss had approved the arrangement with the Chinese tour operator.
“You will have to ask Teng Savong about this. I did not know the deputy prime minister agreed to this arrangement,” An Vong Vatthana, a senior Sar Kheng adviser, said Tuesday.
Khieu Sopheak also said Thursday that he did not know who had authorized an individual outside the government to care for the detainees.
According to Teng Savong, the tour operator receives money from the immigrants’ families in mainland China to buy their food. He will also pay for the return airline tickets, So Vandy and Teng Savong said. The Chinese Embassy also agreed to the arrangement, according to Teng Savong. But a senior Chinese diplomat denied Tuesday that he knew about the tour operator.