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Khmer Krom in limbo: rights group

091229_02
The youngest members of the group of Khmer Krom asylum seekers speak to reporters outside the offices of the UN refugee agency in Phnom Penh on Monday.

ARIGHTS group on Monday accused the government of ignoring the plight of 24 Khmer Krom asylum seekers as they approached the United Nations a second time in a last-ditch effort to secure protection from Vietnamese authorities.

Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organisation, said the group needs a formal letter from the Ministry of Interior to confirm their ethnicity in order for local authorities to process the group’s request for asylum. Several letters sent by the group to the ministry asking for assistance, however, have gone unanswered. “The government has ignored this case,” Ang Chanrith said.

Under existing laws, Khmer Krom should be immediately recognised as Cambodian citizens, but the group has been kept in a holding pattern since it arrived in Cambodia on December 5 after a bid for asylum was rejected by Thailand.

“I am not happy,” Ang Chanrith said. “The government should comply with existing laws. [It] needs to say whether they can or cannot stay.”

The 1996 Law on Nationality states that anyone of Khmer nationality is a Khmer citizen and cannot be exiled or extradited to any foreign country unless there is a mutual agreement.

The group – many of which are children, some as young as a year old – face increasing hardship as the weeks roll by. Thach Soong, 49, said: “I’m very concerned since the government sent back the Uighurs to China. I want the government to consider us as victims.” The group first wrote to the government on December 13. Since then, food and money supplies have dwindled.

Ly Thyleuy, 46, wept on Monday as she spoke of the conditions the Khmer Krom endured in Vietnam. “After two days outside Phnom Penh, we are here now, and it has been terrible,” she said. “When I talk about this, I feel horrible. [Vietnam] tortured us. If we go home, they will kill us because we asked for freedom here.”

Persecuted by the Vietnamese government, she and her family fled to Thailand but were deported to Cambodia on December 5. “We want the [UN refugee agency] to help us to have freedom of religion,” she said. “The freedom to hold our own ceremonies. My children are very young, and Vietnam wouldn’t allow them to go to school.” Another member of the group, 11-year-old Chao Dara, said he wanted to stay in Cambodia.

“Because my parents keep moving, I cannot go to school,” he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed Monday that the ministry had received the letters, but said the case was “difficult”.

“There is a request for land, but it is hard to compare to the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian workers who struggle to work, many of whom have no land,” he said, adding that there were no plans to deport the group.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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