A senior Cambodian official Wednesday admitted the country is a “major” conduit for illegal Chinese immigrants and officially acknowledged for the first time the involvement of Cambodians in what has been called a widespread human smuggling ring.
During a meeting Wednesday with US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng also said the government is actively investigating recent incidents of human trafficking, according to ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, who acted as translator during the discussion.
“I was assured we would receive serious cooperation, that they would investigate who was responsible,” Wiedemann said. “[The Cambodians] admitted it was a very serious problem.”
The meeting between the Cambodian government and US Embassy came just days before 200-plus Chinese nationals are expected to go to court in Cambodia’s first ever prosecution of illegal immigrants.
A raid on a Tuol Kok district house Aug 19 netted 222 Chinese and three Vietnamese. Of those arrested, police said only three had valid passports.
The illegal immigrants would most likely buy travel documents in Cambodia before traveling to other countries, police said.
Many of the world’s illegal immigrants, including a large number of Chinese nationals, eventually settle in the US, Wiedemann said.
“Human smuggling figures largely in US foreign policy. It’s a growing problem for us,” Wiedemann said Wednesday.
Both Wiedemann and Khieu Sopheak called the meeting a positive start to addressing the problem of human smuggling through Cambodia.
Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday two committees have been set up to investigate the arrival of the 200-plus Chinese in Cambodia and two suspicious fires that have been set at the Immigration Police compound near Pochentong Airport, where most of the Chinese have been detained since their arrest.
Several government officials have said the fires, one of which destroyed hundreds of immigration documents, point toward an attempt to cover up the involvement of top Cambodian officials, including a Cambodian diplomat and a high-ranking national police official, in the smuggling.
The smuggling ring allegedly brings thousands of illegal Chinese across the Cambodian border each year, officials claim.
One senior Ministry of Interior official estimated recently that as many as 1 million Chinese have been smuggled into the country, starting in small groups in the early 1990s and escalating to large hauls like the one busted in August.
Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader, who said Wednesday Australia is a major target for illegal immigrants leaving this region of Southeast Asia, also said his embassy is following closely the case of the 200-plus Chinese.
“We are concerned at the news of the mass arrests,” Leader said.
Though he admitted Tuesday that illegal Chinese immigrants have been coming to Cambodia for several years, a Chinese diplomat downplayed the extent of the smuggling, calling the numbers of people passing across the border being cited by Cambodian officials “a joke.”
“There are some [illegal immigrants] who are coming to Cambodia, but never as many as were found this time,” the diplomat said.
The 200-plus Chinese face three to six months in jail for breaking Article 29 of the Cambodian Immigration Law, which prohibits people from coming into the country without valid travel papers.
The Chinese will be deported after serving their jail sentences.