In an end to what the UN refugee agency once described as a “Kafkaesque web” of statelessness, around 2,300 Cambodian refugees living in Vietnam have finally been naturalized or will be soon, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced on Monday.
In a statement, UNHCR said Vietnam had naturalized 287 stateless Cambodian refugees on Friday and taken steps to ensure that another 2,070 will be naturalized by the end of the year.
“In a joyous citizenship ceremony, Vietnam took a ground-breaking step towards closing the last chapter in a 35-year-long statelessness saga for some 2,300 former Cambodians,” UNHCR said.
The 2,357 stateless refugees, many of whom are of Chinese ancestry, fled the Pol Pot regime in the mid-1970s and sought refuge in Vietnam. They ended up living in four UNHCR-administered refugee camps along the border.
With ties to both Cambodia and Vietnam but without legal status in either country, the refugees were caught in a state of limbo, unable to obtain land titles, bank loans, schooling or medical care because they lacked identity cards and formal birth certificates.
The naturalization processes set in motion on Friday “will open the door to health and social insurance, buying a house, higher education and better jobs,” UNHCR said.
“This is definitely long overdue,” said Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s a very, very welcome step to see this happen for people who have been in camps for years and years and years, lacking Vietnamese citizenship protections and struggling to send their kids to school and obtain medical care.”
In a planning report for their operations in Vietnam, UNHCR wrote in 2006 that the refugees living in camps comprised only a tenth of the stateless Cambodians in Vietnam, who number around 23,000.
In addition to about 7,770 other refugees, there were also 13,000 other stateless Cambodians in Vietnam at the time, many of whom were ethnic Vietnamese who fished the Tonle Sap lake before fleeing the Khmer Rouge but were not under the care of UNHCR.
According to the UNHCR report, the difficulty in obtaining Vietnamese citizenship stemmed partly from the difficulty of renouncing Cambodian citizenship.
“First, applicants need to secure a certificate confirming that they have renounced their former nationality (which appears difficult to obtain from the Cambodian authorities), and second, applicants have to pay a fee of $50 to be eligible for Vietnamese nationality, an amount which is unaffordable to most of the refugees,” UNHCR wrote.
The refugee agency also said in 2006 that many of the stateless Cambodians were desperately poor and that they “fervently want[ed] to become Vietnamese citizens.”
“It’s a very sad feeling,” a stateless Cambodian named Sopha Lay Demontero was quoted as saying in the UNHCR report. “For example, when I see my children compared to children of my Vietnamese neighbors, who have easier access to university, easier access to work, why do my children have different treatment?”