Kang Channthary let out a resigned sigh and gripped her sister’s hand tightly as she approached the long line of Cambodians in front of the US Embassy. Like the approximately 150 people in front of her, Kang Channthary came to the embassy last Wednesday to get a tourist visa so she could visit the US, and like many of the Cambodians in the line, she will most likely be denied entry to the US.
While some Cambodians want to enter the US to visit relatives or for business, Kang Channthary said she wants to travel to the US for medical reasons. For the past 10 years, she and her husband have tried—and failed—to conceive a child, a fact that has frustrated her greatly. Her and her husband’s infertility has perplexed her so much that Kang Channthary said she is willing to do just about anything to help her conceive, even if it means traveling approximately 17,600 km to the US capital.
“My uncle lives in Washington DC. He told me there is a hospital that will help me have a child,” Kang Channthary said. Yet once she was in the visa line at the US Embassy and spoke to a few of the hundred-plus Cambodians waiting with her, she began to question her chances of receiving a visa.
“This man has applied for a visa many times, he is always refused,” she said as she pointed to a man standing in line in front of her. “The [US Embassy officials] tell him he does not [earn] enough money, so they are afraid he will try to stay in America.”
Since the US Embassy reinstated its visa policy allowing tourists, businessmen, students and others to visit the US, more than 60 percent of Cambodians applying for tourist visas have been denied. During some months, the rate of denial can reach as high as 70 to 80 percent, said a US Embassy official in Phnom Penh who asked not to be named.
“This number is actually relatively high compared to other developing nations in Southeast Asia,” the official said.
By comparison, 80 percent of all visa requests by Cambodians to visit France for tourism, study and business are accepted, according to officials at the French embassy.
Percentages for the number of Cambodians applying for tourist visa to Britain or Canada were not immediately available because their respective embassies in Cambodia do not handle visa requests. All visa petitions are routed to Bangkok, said officials from both embassies.
The non-immigrant visa office at the US embassy, which was closed after the factional fighting in July 1997, opened again in February 2000. Between February 2000 and January 2001, more than 8,000 Cambodians applied for tourist visas. Approximately 4,800 people were denied business or tourist visas, the official said.
US Embassy officials said they could not comment on Kang Channthary’s visa application or her chances of obtaining a visa.
Most Cambodians are refused because they are considered “flight risks,” which means that once they are in the US, they will most likely not return home. Those who receive visas usually prove they have “strong ties” to Cambodia, or a reason to come back.
“Strong ties differ from country to country, city to city, individual to individual,” states the US State Department’s Web site (www. state.gov), which lists many of the guidelines for receiving a visa. “Some example of ties can be a job, a house, a family, a bank account.”
Under those rather vague guidelines, Kang Channthary could easily receive a tourist visa. She has lived most of her life in Phnom Penh, works as a cashier at a business office, owns a small house, and her entire family—including her husband who is not applying for a visa—lives in Phnom Penh.
Yet the likelihood of her going to the US seemed to diminish.
“This is my first time trying to get a visa,” she said. “How can I get visa on my first time when other people have waited so long?”
Tourists and those seeking medical treatment are not the only ones affected by the non-immigrant visa rejections. Many local businessmen in Cambodia have claimed that they or their associates have been refused visas to visit the US, which in turn has damaged capacity building with US businesses.
Business visas—like tourist visas—fall under the same “non-immigrant” visa category, and therefore businessmen or women who seek visas must also prove they are not a flight risk and that they will return to Cambodia once they are in the US.
“I see all businessmen in Cambodia having problems with receiving business visas to enter the US,” said Kith Thieng, vice chairman of the Royal Group, a prominent local company that works in the telecommunications, real estate and other business sectors here and abroad. “Many of our businessmen want to study the business climate and methods in the US at seminars, but the US Embassy—and the Australian Embassy and British Embassy and many other embassies—will not allow Cambodian businessmen into their countries.”
Kith Thieng said this impairs Cambodia’s ability to compete in the global world economy and with highly-industrialized World Trade Organization country. Since Cambodian businessmen are not intimately familiar with the workings of US businesses, they say they are often left behind economically.
“It’s like bringing a little boy to fight with a giant,” Kith Thieng said. “It’s truly unfair.’
The same could be said for officials in the ministries. Like businessmen and tourists, ministry officials who have sought non-immigrant visas have been rejected on the grounds that they are flight risks.
“We like to be thought of as important,” said a Tourism Ministry official who asked not to be named. “And so if someone puts in a request [for a visa], and it is not honored, then we think we do not mean much to the American government.”
Like Kith Thieng, the Tourism Ministry official said he believes that Cambodians overall—not just tourists—are hurt by the visa situation. “The objection I have is that if you want a new breed of people in Cambodia who are better educated, then you must give them opportunities, because if they can’t go to the US to learn or visit then how do they know anything?”
The official, who visited the US last year for six months, said he was rejected the first time he applied for a visa, and it wasn’t until he made his status as civil servant known that he was granted a visa.
“At first it was very difficult to get the visa, but then I talked with the US Embassy officials, and they approved me,” he said. “They asked me many questions though, like ‘Do you plan to live in the US?’ or ‘If you go, will you have family to stay with in America?’ The probing question they ask is ‘Do you have any ties to your country?’ If you are a single man without a family, then they would never let you enter the US.”
Even a married woman with a husband who has no intention of leaving Phnom Penh has trouble getting a visa, as Kang Channthary is finding out. Her optimism waned as she crept closer to the tourist visa office and watched the endless line of Cambodians exit the office. Some were smiling, obviously victorious in their battle to obtain a visa. A few were frowning. But most departing from the office left with only uncertainty, for it can often take weeks or months for a visa application to be finalized.
But Kang Channthary is no stranger to waiting. “I have waited 10 years for a child,” she said. “I can wait a few weeks or months for a visa.”