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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Human freight, stranded in Cambodia

Human freight, stranded in Cambodia

Years before Al-Qaeda became imprinted on the world's consciousness, a young man

was preparing to leave his homeland of Afghanistan and follow his parents to Europe.

The so-called 'war on terror' was six years away, and the word 'Taliban' was not

even in most people's vocabulary.

But for 24-year-old Abdul Ahmed, not his real name, life under the Taliban was a

harsh reality. Ahmed's father had worked with the German and US embassies in Kabul,

and his family thought this made Ahmed a target for persecution. His father had emigrated

to Germany some years earlier and later became ill, so in 1997 Ahmed's uncle handed

him $8,000 and told him to leave and tend to his father.

Ahmed boarded a plane with 21 other Afghans, assuming he was on his way to Europe.

But when he finally emerged from the plane, he was in Burma.

"A smuggler brought me to Burma, then to Thailand, then to Cambodia and he took

my money and passport," explains Ahmed, who is still visibly distressed by the

experience.

"I did not know where I was, or where I was going. [In Cambodia] I went back

and forth to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I said: 'Send

me to Germany. I do not want to stay here.' They said they would help me."

That was six years ago. Ahmed's lawyer says that UNHCR can do nothing to assist him

in getting to Germany-its mandate is to repatriate all Afghans. Despite his trauma,

Ahmed, now 30, has tried hard to make a life here. He has a two-year-old son whose

picture he carries in his wallet, but Cambodia is a far cry from what he was expecting.

"Cambodia is not my country, this is not my life," he says. "It has

the same problems as Afghanistan, there is always fighting ... I'm waiting to go

to Germany. I want something for my child and I miss my mother and my father all

the time."

There are others like Ahmed, living in limbo in Cambodia. Some are lucky and transit

illegally to their country of choice-others are caught and repatriated. Bengt Juhlin,

the country representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says human

smugglers have several reasons for using Cambodia for their trade.

"Cambodia is a very attractive country for transiting people to overseas destinations,"

says Juhlin. "One reason ... is that the control of the inflow and outflow of

people is much less sophisticated than any other country in the region ... Human

smugglers are taking advantage of the weakest country, where any detection could

be countered by bribes to corrupt officials."

Typically, explains Juhlin, Cambodia is used as a transit point while smugglers arrange

onward transport, and amass enough people to make the journey worthwhile. Some would-be

emigrants are caught and referred to UNHCR.

In 2001, a boatload of 241 Afghans and Pakistanis was intercepted off the coast of

Sihanoukville en route to Australia. They were all repatriated, but Juhlin believes

a high percentage slip through the net.

"There are indications that operations are being planned all the time,"

he says. "If you look at the control of shipping fleets, customs and excise,

the likelihood of small ships carrying 25 to 100 people is high. [But] the interception

is probably quite low."

Mohammad Al-Nassery, program officer at the International Organization for Migration

(IOM), says most people try to get to Australia, New Zealand, or prospering Asian

countries like Malaysia and Singapore. But he sees many cases like Ahmed's. The smuggler

simply takes away their documents and leaves their human cargo stranded.

"It's much easier for the smugglers to bring them here rather than go through

the hazards of flying them to Australia," he says.

And once they are caught by immigration, illegal immigrants are put under surveillance.

The immigration department will seek to repatriate the person by contacting the relevant

embassy, or by referring them to IOM and UNHCR.

"We get information, but we are helpless," says Al-Nassery, explaining

that IOM can only liaise with embassies and help with repatriation. "We don't

have the authority [or] sufficient funds to deal with them. UNHCR classes if they

are refugees or not, [but] lots of people don't fit under the narrow definition of

what a refugee is. They end up being in Cambodia with no alternative."

Figures from the Department of Immigration state that 64 people have been granted

refugee status and 171 applications are still pending. This figure does not include

Vietnamese Montagnards, who comprise the vast majority of refugees in Cambodia. Statistics

on how many people are living illegally in Cambodia, or how many make it to their

destination of choice, are unavailable. Those working in the field say lax law enforcement

means illegal immigrants can live in Cambodia for years without detection.

Third-party resettlement is rare. This means people like Ahmed can be stranded in

Cambodia, unable to reunite with family, and cannot return to their country for fear

of persecution. UNHCR country head Nikola Mihaijlovic refused to speak to the Post

about its policy here or confirm any statistics related to the number of refugees.

Getting the international community to show interest is also a problem, says Al-Nassery.

Their priority is to prevent the trafficking of people for work in the sex industry.

Funding has, so far, been targeted at airport immigration, and aims at keeping people

out rather than helping refugees here.

One of the biggest tasks has been installing a fully computerized system at Phnom

Penh International Airport, although that does not stop the many people that enter

the country legally-visas are granted to all nationalities provided they have a valid

passport.

It is at the overland borders where lawlessness prevails. A senior official at the

Department of Immigration, who requested anonymity, admits that changing the attitudes

of officials and communicating a new policy to the provinces takes time.

"In the past, awareness was not enough and the knowledge of people in coping

with this crime was low," he says. "Our officials are still not equipped

to deal with this. This has created a loophole, and the organizers took advantage

of this."

The official admits that another problem is the involvement of government officials.

"They give some sort of present so officials will close their eyes and allow

entry," he says.

UNODC's Juhlin also points to the lucrative side of the industry. He says people

will pay as much as $30,000 for passage to another country, which is sometimes the

entire wealth of their village.

"It's an extremely costly exercise," he says. "Obviously you need

[high level support] to get documents and get checked into hotels. This is a business

that is extremely profitable ... [which] means the people will be able to attract

high-level protection."

But the immigration department official maintains that things are changing. Donor

money has been put towards an Enhanced Migration Management program. As well as improving

the system at the airport, the program will train border immigration officials to

detect false documents.

The official says all immigration will eventually be computerized. And introducing

some sort of legislation to deal with the perpetrators is top of the agenda-the only

crime people-smugglers can currently be charged with is document fraud.

"We find it very difficult to look for any piece of legislation that deals with

this crime," he says. "We have laws that cover trafficking and kidnapping,

but we don't have a sufficient article that covers human smuggling."

The bulk of financial support for immigration and anti-human smuggling measures comes

from Australia, a country with a reputation for being unwelcoming to so-called 'boat

people'. This was exemplified in August 2001 when it refused entry to more than 500

asylum-seekers stranded in Australian waters.

"[Human trafficking] is a potential threat to Australia," says IOM's Al-Nassery.

"You won't find any other donor government which is interested."

Another country that provides some assistance is the United States. Its embassy spokesperson

says the US provides assistance as an extension of its general anti-trafficking program,

and "supported the government in maintaining the integrity of their borders".

Details of specific immigration-related assistance cannot be disclosed for security

reasons, the spokesperson says, as they are tied to anti-terrorism measures.

However, speaking in April this year, an official from the Ministry of Interior said

the US had provided immigration with a list of people suspected of having links to

terror networks.

Meanwhile, as the international community deliberates on how to keep people out of

their countries, people like Ahmed are forgotten. His case is still pending, now

in the hands of the German Embassy.

The senior immigration officer sympathizes with Ahmed's case. The issue of human

smuggling is not a clear-cut case of right and wrong, he says, and it is the victims

of human trade who suffer most.

"My target is the organizations, not the victims. They are the victims of their

dreams," he says. "[Migration] took place 100 years ago. [People] travel

to look for a good place, and now the migrants are being punished and put in detention

centers. I feel very miserable for these people ... all they desire is a good life."

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