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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Interior Ministry identifies 70,000 ‘improper’ citizens, mostly ethnic Vietnamese

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks at a forum yesterday at the Interior Ministry.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks at a forum yesterday at the Interior Ministry. Heng Chivoan

Interior Ministry identifies 70,000 ‘improper’ citizens, mostly ethnic Vietnamese

The Ministry of Interior is moving forward with a plan to revoke official documents from 70,000 individuals living in Cambodia, claiming they were “improperly” issued and mistakenly confer citizenship on “immigrants” – many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia.

Minister Sar Kheng headed a meeting yesterday to discuss revoking mistakenly issued or erroneous documents.

“There are foreigners who hold inaccurate documents because they were issued improperly. The officials’ ability is weak and the weakness is not from the bottom, but is from the top,” Kheng said, explaining that there isn’t a coherent enough national policy.

“It is a national problem, not any specific person. Therefore, we need to solve this,” he added.

Sok Phal, head of the Immigration Department, said the offending officials would be “punished” and that the sub-decree would be implemented over the coming months.

“The people obtaining the documents also have to take responsibility, but if we arrested them all, we would not have a cell to throw them in,” Phal said, explaining there are around 70,000 with illegitimate citizenship.

Phal acknowledged that most of the offenders were ethnic Vietnamese who had been born in Cambodia and have no other citizenship.

He said a sub-decree passed in August allows authorities to cancel documents like identity cards and passports, effectively revoking citizenship from thousands, though he denied this was the case on the grounds they should never have been citizens.

“We don’t remove their citizenship, they are Vietnamese. We just take the Cambodian documents,” he said.

Phal said the individuals would be labelled as illegal migrants, but assured they would not be forcibly removed. In the capital, the ministry has already identified 7,501 cases of incorrect birth certificates and 305 erroneous passports.

“We do not have policies like Lon Nol or Pol Pot of evacuating or killing . . . They can go back to their country. On the other hand, because they lived here for a long time, they can file an application with authorities to check whether they can get the status as an immigrant,” he said.

Anti-Vietnamese sentiment has long coloured both Cambodian politics and social discourse. Former Prime Minister Lon Nol oversaw massacres of ethnic Vietnamese, and the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are on trial in part for genocide against the Vietnamese. The Cambodia National Rescue Party, meanwhile, has used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to galvanise supporters.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called the policy a “disastrous rights violating plan”.

“Such a plan would be a blatant violation of the [1954 United Nations] Statelessness Convention because these people have nowhere else that they claim citizenship. You can also bet that doing this would make Cambodia’s human trafficking problem a whole [lot] worse,” Robertson said via email.

Additional reporting by Andrew Nachemson

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