Lengthy delays for duty-free goods to be cleared by customs have prompted the head of the UN Development Program to ask the government to investigate the problem.
UNDP Resident Representative Paul Matthews said Monday he has sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance requesting officials to end the delays and speed up custom clearance.
NGOs and UN agencies are allowed to import duty-free goods into Cambodia, as is anyone importing household goods and personal effects.
But since the beginning of the year—according to shipping companies, aid, and embassy officials—the bureaucratic process of getting duty-free goods cleared through customs has lengthened from a few days to several weeks
—and sometimes months.
The delays, said Matthews, have become “almost the rule, rather than the exception.”
The deputy director of external finance, Vongsey Vissoth, confirmed Monday that the Finance Ministry had received the March letter but directed questions on the matter to the customs department, a branch of the Finance Ministry.
Customs officials could not be reached for comment Monday. In Saroeun was appointed the new director of the customs department in November, replacing Sar Ho.
Matthews said he has not received a written response from the Finance Ministry, but understood that someone was looking into it.
Matthews wrote to Finance Minister Keat Chhon on behalf of all UN agencies in Cambodia, including the World Health Organization and UN Children’s Fund.
He said not only that the delays are impeding the organizations’ abilities to carry out projects, but that there is concern that vaccines and other perishable items might expire while waiting to be cleared.
Several Western embassy officials speculated last week that the delays are the result of a crackdown on corruption in the customs department made late last year in the wake of severe budget shortfalls.
They questioned, however, why duty-free shipments were being affected.
“Why the delays? I don’t know,” said one embassy official. “The government makes no revenue off [these shipments] so there is no reason for the delay.”
NGOs and UN agencies are not the only ones plagued with customs delays. Several shipping and freight forwarding companies said they also have found the customs department suddenly taking much longer to clear shipments.
The manager of one shipping company, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in 1997, personal effects took about 10 days from their arrival at the port to delivery at the customer’s home. NGO shipments, he said, took about three weeks to clear.
But since January, he said, it is taking on average about 65 days to clear shipments, not only for company employees moving into Cambodia but also for UN agencies and NGOs.
For shippers and their clients, he said, the delays can result in hundreds of dollars in additional costs.
Not only must clients pay for a hotel room while they wait for their personal effects to clear, but they must also pay the storage and rental fees that shipping companies charge for their containers.
The customs department also fines people if goods are left at Sihanoukville port for longer than 45 days, or at Pochentong Airport for longer than 30 days, he said.
The inconvenience created by the delays has made some foreign investors think twice about investing in the country, said the shipper. One international corporation that has just arrived in Cambodia has already considered pulling its operations out of the country because of these problems, he said.
The delays mean more trips to ministries and visits to customs officials than previously required. One freight forwarder said in the past month his company has increased its rates by 25 percent for clearing goods being imported into Cambodia.
Despite the problems, several shippers said they are reluctant to complain for fear it would makes things worse.