Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Cambodia's deportations ordered by China

By Chak Sopheap, Guest Commentary to UPI Asia Online

Published on 2010 Jan 21

Niigata, Japan — After decades of isolation due to genocide and political conflict, Cambodia has integrated with regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and adopted a free market system. However, the right to movement in the country is still restricted and issues related to refugees and migrants are highly politicized.

The deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China in December last year reveals the implications and challenges that face Cambodia.

Although many Cambodian refugees who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime were resettled in other countries thanks to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which is a legally binding treaty and a milestone in international refugee law, the Cambodian government, which is a signatory to the convention, ignored it in deporting the Uighurs. It has therefore violated its legal and humanitarian responsibilities.

Ethnic tensions between the Uighurs and China’s majority Han people in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang resulted in nearly 200 deaths and 1,600 injured in a July riot last year. Subsequently, hundreds of Uighurs were detained and many executed for their involvement in the riots.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 43 Uighurs disappeared while 22 entered Cambodia with the hope of seeking asylum to flee persecution in China. Despite appeals from human rights activists and the international community, the Cambodian government, which previously had claimed it would cooperate with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to provide asylum, promptly deported the Uighurs the day before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Cambodia.

This clearly indicates China’s strong political influence on the Cambodian government, which allegedly received a package of grants and loans worth approximately US$1 billion for deporting the Uighurs.

In addition, irregularities in the application of Cambodian laws were also evident in the deportation process. Two days prior to the deportation, a new decree signed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was issued making the processing of asylum cases the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Interior.

Although the government denied that the passage of this item, which was being drafted for more than six months, was not relevant to the Uighurs’ deportation, it seemed more than pure coincidence.

Furthermore, the deportation process was completed in a hurried manner on a late Saturday night when government officials do not work.

The government later justified its action by claiming that the deportation was based on immigration laws and that the Uighurs had illegally entered the country without valid passports or visas. If that is the case, then the government has failed to tackle the many cases of illegal migrants from Vietnam.

That the deportation of the Uighurs from Cambodia was influenced by China is evident from the remarks of its Foreign Ministry, which said at a press conference, “China’s stance is very clear. The international refugee protection system should not become a shelter where criminals stay to escape legal punishment.”

If the Cambodian government stands by China’s remarks, then why has it not deported former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is an economic adviser to the Cambodian government, despite repeated requests from the Thai government?

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and faces a minimum two-year jail term for corruption, according to the Thai government. But the Cambodian government says that Thaksin’s conviction is politically motivated and that the extradition treaty between the two nations allows either party to deny extradition in cases of “political offenses,” among others.

But Cambodia is not the only country where deportation cases are politicized. Thailand has also been criticized for abusing the refugee convention following its late December deportation of an estimated 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos where they face persecution.

Historically, the Hmong people supported the United States during the Vietnam War when the conflict spread to Laos. After the war ended and the communists resumed power in 1975, thousands fled to neighboring Thailand.

The Thai government has repeatedly ignored accusations of alleged killings of Cambodian loggers who illegally cross the border and stray into the forests of Thailand. In addition, it has also denied the abuse of refugees from Myanmar who were turned back to sea and left to perish without food and water.

Immigration laws have also been politicized in the United States. Several of its immigration laws in the past 20 years were introduced during periodic episodes of anti-migrant hysteria and have been a major political issue during presidential election campaigns.

For example, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago, was signed under former President Bill Clinton’s administration in September, shortly before elections in November that year.

Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that led to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor crimes such as shoplifting.

Moreover, the act stripped judges of nearly all discretion in determining whether permanent residents should be deported. There are limits on litigation that prevent individuals or groups from suing the government or appealing decisions by the Immigration Department or lower courts.

Under the expansion of this law together with the 2002 extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia, signed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 200 Cambodian refugees were deported by November 2008 and roughly 2,000 are waiting to be deported.

Beyond the unconstitutional law provision, the deportation has been done without any consideration on the impact of the deportees’ livelihood and their families.

In a nutshell, many states have abused the rights of migrants and refugees for political benefit despite being signatories to the U.N. refugee convention.

These ongoing violations are a signal to the international community to seek a more effective mechanism and willingness from governments to respect the rights of refugees instead of misusing them for political gain.

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Niigata, Japan — After decades of isolation due to genocide and political conflict, Cambodia has integrated with regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and adopted a free market system. However, the right to movement in the country is still restricted and issues related to refugees and migrants are highly politicized.The deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China in December last year reveals the implications and challenges that face Cambodia.

Although many Cambodian refugees who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime were resettled in other countries thanks to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which is a legally binding treaty and a milestone in international refugee law, the Cambodian government, which is a signatory to the convention, ignored it in deporting the Uighurs. It has therefore violated its legal and humanitarian responsibilities.

Ethnic tensions between the Uighurs and China’s majority Han people in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang resulted in nearly 200 deaths and 1,600 injured in a July riot last year. Subsequently, hundreds of Uighurs were detained and many executed for their involvement in the riots.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 43 Uighurs disappeared while 22 entered Cambodia with the hope of seeking asylum to flee persecution in China. Despite appeals from human rights activists and the international community, the Cambodian government, which previously had claimed it would cooperate with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to provide asylum, promptly deported the Uighurs the day before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Cambodia.

This clearly indicates China’s strong political influence on the Cambodian government, which allegedly received a package of grants and loans worth approximately US$1 billion for deporting the Uighurs.

In addition, irregularities in the application of Cambodian laws were also evident in the deportation process. Two days prior to the deportation, a new decree signed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was issued making the processing of asylum cases the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Interior.

Although the government denied that the passage of this item, which was being drafted for more than six months, was not relevant to the Uighurs’ deportation, it seemed more than pure coincidence.

Furthermore, the deportation process was completed in a hurried manner on a late Saturday night when government officials do not work.

The government later justified its action by claiming that the deportation was based on immigration laws and that the Uighurs had illegally entered the country without valid passports or visas. If that is the case, then the government has failed to tackle the many cases of illegal migrants from Vietnam.

That the deportation of the Uighurs from Cambodia was influenced by China is evident from the remarks of its Foreign Ministry, which said at a press conference, “China’s stance is very clear. The international refugee protection system should not become a shelter where criminals stay to escape legal punishment.”

If the Cambodian government stands by China’s remarks, then why has it not deported former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is an economic adviser to the Cambodian government, despite repeated requests from the Thai government?

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and faces a minimum two-year jail term for corruption, according to the Thai government. But the Cambodian government says that Thaksin’s conviction is politically motivated and that the extradition treaty between the two nations allows either party to deny extradition in cases of “political offenses,” among others.

But Cambodia is not the only country where deportation cases are politicized. Thailand has also been criticized for abusing the refugee convention following its late December deportation of an estimated 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos where they face persecution.

Historically, the Hmong people supported the United States during the Vietnam War when the conflict spread to Laos. After the war ended and the communists resumed power in 1975, thousands fled to neighboring Thailand.

The Thai government has repeatedly ignored accusations of alleged killings of Cambodian loggers who illegally cross the border and stray into the forests of Thailand. In addition, it has also denied the abuse of refugees from Myanmar who were turned back to sea and left to perish without food and water.

Immigration laws have also been politicized in the United States. Several of its immigration laws in the past 20 years were introduced during periodic episodes of anti-migrant hysteria and have been a major political issue during presidential election campaigns.

For example, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago, was signed under former President Bill Clinton’s administration in September, shortly before elections in November that year.

Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that led to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor crimes such as shoplifting.

Moreover, the act stripped judges of nearly all discretion in determining whether permanent residents should be deported. There are limits on litigation that prevent individuals or groups from suing the government or appealing decisions by the Immigration Department or lower courts.

Under the expansion of this law together with the 2002 extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia, signed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 200 Cambodian refugees were deported by November 2008 and roughly 2,000 are waiting to be deported.

Beyond the unconstitutional law provision, the deportation has been done without any consideration on the impact of the deportees’ livelihood and their families.

In a nutshell, many states have abused the rights of migrants and refugees for political benefit despite being signatories to the U.N. refugee convention.

These ongoing violations are a signal to the international community to seek a more effective mechanism and willingness from governments to respect the rights of refugees instead of misusing them for political gain.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

1 Comment

  1. Hello, Ms. Sopheap. I am Lyda Chea, a senior student at the Department of Media and Communication. I am currently doing a research thesis, submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the Bachelor of Arts in Media Management, on “Cambodian female bloggers”. It would be very appreciated if I can conduct an e-mail interview with you regarding your personal experiences from using blog. Your blog has been randomly selected, yet your full approval for participating in this study is prioritized. Therefore, would you mind confirming your participation in this research study within a week either through my e-mail address lyda.dmc.ifl@gmail.com/ lyda_tva@yahoo.com or through my telephone number 012 381 571 for clarification?
    I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    Your faithfully,

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