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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."