Calling the smuggling of illegal immigrants a “major foreign policy issue,” US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Tuesday that he will discuss with senior government officials today the case of the 200-plus illegal Chinese detained in Cambodia.
“The US is probably the biggest recipient of these [illegal immigrants] in the end,” Wiedemann said. “We want to focus on continuing many of these kinds of arrests to stop smuggling.”
A raid on a Tuol Kok district house Aug 19 netted 222 Chinese and three Vietnamese illegal immigrants. Of those arrested, police said only three had valid passports. The migrants most likely would buy travel documents in Cambodia before traveling to other countries, police said.
Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara, who spearheaded the arrest, said earlier this month that senior National Police officials and a Cambodian diplomat are connected to the systematic human smuggling ring, which officials estimate generates tens of thousands of dollars each month.
Wiedemann acknowledged the allegations of official involvement but cautioned that no proof has been found to implicate members of the government.
“But this case is very useful because it draws attention to the issue,” Wiedemann said. “The number of allegations [might be useful] to tell officials how to behave or not to behave.”
Wiedemann said the embassy will ask the government for a commitment to crack down on smuggling immigrants through Cambodia, which he said contributes to the worldwide problem of human trafficking. The ambassador is scheduled to meet with Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng today, a government adviser said.
The US is not the only Western nation monitoring the case of the 200-plus Chinese. Earlier this month, Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said officials in Canberra are concerned with the issue of illegal immigrants, noting that many from Southeast Asia end up in Australia.
In what has marked the Cambodian judiciary’s first public acknowledgment of human smuggling in Cambodia, the 200-plus Chinese nationals are scheduled to be appear in court Sept 20.
But a Chinese Embassy official said Tuesday he has not been informed of the pending court case, which could send the Chinese nationals to jail for as long as six months before they are deported.
According to the diplomat, who asked not to be named, the arrest of the illegal Chinese did not pose a diplomatic problem. But Chinese officials wanted the issue resolved “smoothly” without jail sentences.
“If they do it this way [with prison] it will be a problem. Then it will get very complicated,” the Chinese official said.
Though Chea Sophara aggressively sought to prosecute the Chinese last week, he said Monday he also was unaware of a court date and appears to have softened his stance on their fate, saying he would rely on the courts to make a decision.
But another Asian diplomat said Monday that involvement with the court is likely only a formality, and many in both the Cambodian and Chinese governments hope the case goes away quietly. He added authorities charged with investigating the trafficking problem may fear retribution from its backers.
“Maybe people are afraid,” the Asian diplomat said. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen is not in the country and they do not know what will happen.”
Regardless of whether the illegal Chinese are jailed, they will be sent back to China, the Chinese diplomat said, though he added this could take time.
Chinese officials have to first verify each of the immigrants’ identities before they can be deported, he said, adding that no official Chinese investigation of the alleged smuggling ring would begin until all the immigrants are returned to China. Once back in China, the immigrants could be prosecuted for violating the county’s ban on travel, he said.
“We haven’t considered how to return them yet,” the Chinese diplomat said. “There are many ways to get from Cambodia to China…but we will not pay for the ticket. Their families will pay for the tickets.”
An ethnic Chinese who works as a tour operator in Phnom Penh has been tapped to organize the mass deportation, government officials said.
The same man has been responsible for feeding the illegal Chinese, most of whom have been detained at Immigration Police Headquarters near Pochentong Airport since their arrest.
The Cambodian government has stopped paying to feed the Chinese, according to an immigration police official. The Chinese must pay $2 each day for their food, which totals about 150 kg of food per day, including rice, vegetables and meat, police officers at the Immigration Police headquarters said.
The food money will be collected by the tour operator from the immigrant’s families in China, the immigration police official said Monday.