Cambodia reiterated its wish to renegotiate how its citizens are deported from the U.S. on Tuesday as it emerged that dozens more Cambodian nationals were being sent to the country.
Only last month, the government said it was pressing ahead with a review of the 2002 repatriation agreement, which allows Cambodians who are permanent residents in the U.S. to be deported if they are convicted of a felony.
With news that more deportees will be on their way to Cambodia, officials pressed the issue again, even though a U.S. Embassy spokesman said in December that the agreement remained “in force and unchanged.”
“This [memorandum of understanding] should be on the table for re-discussion or renegotiation,” Khieu Sopheak, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday.
“We wish to have only voluntary repatriation” of Cambodian nationals, General Sopheak said, a change in the agreement that would allow individuals to decide whether they would be deported after serving their prison sentences in the U.S.
The U.S. had requested that 47 people be deported, but the government only accepted 36 because the others “are not real Cambodian citizens,” Gen. Sopheak added, though a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, Keo Vannthan, put the number at only 34. The reason for the discrepancy in the numbers was unclear.
“Now, they are waiting for travel documents from us. We are preparing the documents and we will send it to them soon,” Lieutenant General Vannthan said.
Since 2002, 538 Cambodians who were living legally in the U.S. have been deported after receiving felony convictions, according to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), an NGO that assists deportees upon their arrival in Cambodia.
Many were born in Thai refugee camps and went to the U.S. as children. They have served prison time and face being separated from their families in the U.S. and deported to a country in which many of them have never lived.
Last year, the U.S. deported 41 Cambodians, with the last group of repatriated citizens arriving in September, according to the RISC.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said in an email on Tuesday that the U.S. believes all nations are obligated under international law to accept their citizens. He referred questions about the status of Cambodians awaiting deportation to Cambodian immigration authorities and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which could not be reached on Tuesday.
Bill Herod, an adviser to RISC, said it was unlikely that the new deportees would all arrive at the same time.
“There’s an unwritten rule that they wouldn’t send more than 10 a month,” Mr. Herod said.
However, with a new U.S. administration and a “logjam” of deportees since September, this policy may change, he said.
“Also because they’ve got those guys in detention in the States, they might want to move them as soon as possible.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)