Top Official Admits Human Smuggling Ring, US Steps In

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.


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