Sameth Nhean’s travel documents, which Cambodia issues to authorize the repatriation of its nationals from the U.S., expired on August 8.
He may still face deportation to Cambodia—the country where he holds citizenship yet has never set foot—but for now, it’s unclear whether Mr. Nhean, 35, will be reissued the papers necessary to expel him from the U.S., where he has lived since he was 3 years old.
For months, the U.S. and Cambodia have been engaged in a diplomatic back-and-forth over an agreement that allows the U.S. to deport Cambodian permanent residents, like Mr. Nhean, who were convicted of felonies.
Last week, an Interior Ministry official confirmed that the Cambodian government had stopped issuing new travel documents, in a likely attempt to press the U.S. into renegotiating the agreement.
But a document from a USAID-funded NGO that supports deported Cambodians upon their arrival in Phnom Penh suggests the U.S. still intends to repatriate about 100 more deportees over the next two years, with more than a dozen expected in the next few months.
Despite Cambodia’s stand, observers say the government’s move to challenge the deportations is unlikely to hold under anticipated diplomatic pressure from the U.S.
Preparing for New Arrivals
Since 2002, 566 Cambodians have been deported from the U.S. under the agreement. In October, however, Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh asking to amend the countries’ agreement and suspend it temporarily.
It was at that time that Cambodia halted the issuance of new travel documents, an advocate from a group that has lobbied Cambodian officials to restrict deportations said last week.
Bill Herod, founder and adviser to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), which has supported Cambodians who are deported from the U.S. since 2002, said the NGO was nevertheless expecting more deportees soon, estimating “100 new arrivals during the next year.”
“My guess is that when the flow starts again, we are likely to see 8-10 [repatriated Cambodians] per month,” Mr. Herod said in a message last week.
The annual number of deportations since 2002 varies greatly—with 88 people deported in 2011 and four in 2013. In the first nine months of 2015, no Cambodians were repatriated, but 33 people were by year’s end, according to RISC data. The last group arrived in May, having been issued travel documents before the freeze began.
According to an updated program description from RISC, which details the U.S.-funded NGO’s objectives in providing initial orientation and assistance with finding jobs and housing, acquiring legal documents and accessing medical care, among other support, the organization is preparing for 16 more repatriated Cambodians by October and 94 on top of that by September 2019.
“The project anticipated the target population to be at 582 individuals by the start of this proposed project in October 2017, and at 676 individuals by the end of this proposed project in September, 2019,” the document says.
RISC is the only Cambodia-based NGO that focuses on providing direct assistance to deportees to help them integrate into Cambodian society, Mr. Herod said. About two-thirds of its program budget is funded by USAID, he added.
No Travel Documents, No US Visas?
Despite Cambodia’s apparent efforts to limit deportations, the U.S. may apply diplomatic pressure to push Cambodia to start issuing travel documents again and accepting its own citizens, which is required by Cambodian law.
Pressures, like the U.S. stopping the issuance of visas for Cambodians to travel to the U.S., could compel Cambodia to cave, said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“It would be disastrous to say the least for every Cambodian who wants to come stateside. If that happened, Cambodia would fold immediately,” Mr. Ear said in an email last Saturday.
Mr. Herod of RISC has said that the U.S. used similar tactics to get Cambodia to sign the nations’ repatriation agreement in the first place.
If Cambodia didn’t start issuing travel documents, the U.S. could deny visas to the U.S. for all Cambodian citizens, including students, tourists, business people and even most diplomats, he said in an email last week.
“The U.S. could also tie compliance to aid and other cooperative activities,” he added.
The precedent of accepting more than 500 deported Cambodians over the last 15 years would make it hard for the government to stand its ground now, Mr. Ear said.
“If someone was not even born on Cambodian land, how can they be deported to Cambodia? Yet Cambodia issued them travel documents year after year after year,” he said. “Now they decide enough is enough?”
“Talk is cheap,” he added.
Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have claimed they are motivated by human rights concerns because deported Cambodians were being unjustly separated from their families in the U.S.
“When they send back the [former] prisoners to Cambodia, the wives and children continue living in the United States,” Mr. Hun Sen said in April. “This is a sad separation.”
However, the government may also have more pragmatic goals in mind, seeking political gain or concessions from the U.S. in delaying repatriations. In particular, there are indications that the government may be seeking more U.S. support for deportees after they arrive in the country.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry said in its October letter to the U.S. that it wished to amend the joint repatriation agreement “to implement properly and effectively the integration of the returnees into Cambodian society.”
In the 15 years in which Cambodia has accepted deportees, the government has never funded services to help them integrate, and USAID funding levels for RISC have varied over the last 10 years.
Mr. Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said changes to the agreement could help Cambodia secure aid for repatriated citizens. Cambodia might be able to “wring out some dollars out of a deal to help support deportees,” he said.
Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum public policy think tank, agreed that in suspending the issuance of travel documents, Cambodia might be trying “to get more concessions out of America before they can accept more deportees,” including aid to support programs for deportees.
Scoring political points, especially on a human rights issue against the U.S., and appealing to Cambodians in the U.S., might be other motivating factors.
Mr. Ear said one reason Cambodia may have called for revisions to the repatriation agreement was to make the government “look more compassionate” to a Cambodian community in the U.S. that mostly “sees life in America as more free than in Cambodia, until of course they’re forced to return back to Cambodia [or to land there for the first time].”
Mr. Virak said Cambodia actually had the moral high ground in opposing deportations while the U.S. was in a strange position—uncharacteristic compared to its usual role of criticizing Cambodia’s human rights record—in deporting people who went to the U.S. as refugees.
“Cambodia’s government is in the right and America is in the wrong,” he said, adding that U.S. leadership on human rights in the region was undermined by the country’s deportations of Cambodians.
If the Cambodian government indeed is hoping to improve its image through exchanges with the U.S. over deportees, it seems to be having an effect.
Kalvin Hang, a member of advocacy group 1Love Cambodia, last week commended the Cambodian government for its efforts to challenge deportations.
The government “has held strong in their commitment to address the concerns of Cambodian families being broken apart by U.S. deportation,” said Mr. Hang, who was deported from the U.S. in 2004.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Tuesday that Cambodia was awaiting a second meeting with the U.S. after already suggesting changes to the repatriation agreement, although he did not know when the meeting would occur.
“We proposed that the people should be repatriated on a voluntary basis,” General Sopheak said.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry could not be reached for comment this week.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes said last week that discussions between the U.S. and Cambodia were ongoing.
Mr. Nhean, the 35-year-old marked for deportation, had been held in U.S. immigration detention while awaiting deportation, despite having already served 90 days of a 21-month prison sentence for a 2002 conviction of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon after attempting to stop his former girlfriend from driving home while intoxicated.
He was released on August 7, the day before his travel documents expired.
In a similar situation is Chamroeun Phan, also a father and husband, who has been detained by immigration authorities for nearly a year.
U.S. immigration judges ruled against their deportations, citing the hardships they would cause their families, but the U.S. government is appealing the judges’ decisions.
Mr. Phan, 34, may still be deported over his past criminal conviction for which he served 40 days of a one-year prison sentence for causing less than $1,500 worth of property damage. But Cambodia’s freeze on issuing travel documents could at least see him released from detention.
“Since his travel document expired…they shouldn’t have any reason to detain him,” his sister Montha Chum said in a message last week from the U.S. “I just wish they would release my brother. He is no threat to anyone.”