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Khmer Krom plead for citizenship

Khmer Krom asylum seekers, recently deported from Thailand, at their temporary shelter in a Phnom Penh pagoda on Thursday.

A group of 24 deportees from Thailand have arrived in Phnom Penh to seek government assistance.

A GROUP of 24 Khmer Krom asylum seekers recently deported from Thailand arrived in Phnom Penh on Wednesday in a desperate bid to have their Cambodian citizenship confirmed by the government.

The group, part of an ethnic minority from the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam, were deported from Thailand on December 5 after fleeing Vietnam. They had been sheltered by the Independent Democratic Association of Non-Formal Economy in Banteay Meachey’s Poipet town.

Members of the group – which is currently staying at Wat Angtaminh near Phnom Penh International Airport – say they fear severe repercussions from the Vietnamese government if they are deported.

Members of the group say that when they fled Vietnam, they lost their homes and many possessions. Huynh Ut, 33, said his father is now disabled as a result of abuse by Vietnamese authorities. “They broke his skull and beat his body, and shocked him” with a stun device, he said. “After three months, the starvation made him disabled.”

Another member of the group, 56-year-old Choav Heng, said: “Yesterday, we went in to meet the UNHCR to fill in forms and register with the government so they can start to help us,” referring to the UN refugee agency. “We have sent many letters to the Ministry of Interior so they could see this case and try to help us, but we have not received a response. We have also written to the National Assembly, many NGOs and human rights organisations because we are in great difficulty. We don’t have any food. We don’t have any money. We don’t have anything for our daily lives.”

Though hungry, poor and with no place to live, the biggest worry for his group, said Choav Heng, is the constant fear of being sent back to Vietnam.

“The Vietnamese government still wants to catch us,” he said.

“We need protection. Because we are Khmer Krom, we would like the government to give us some security and confidence.”

He added: “We need the government and UNHCR to accept us as Cambodian people. We would like the government to help find us a place to stay near schools and markets. We also need land for agriculture.”

He said the group needed “help from the government with identification cards or any documents we need” to become Cambodian citizens. “For me, I would just like a place. A good place, any place that they can give us. We find it hard to be understood, [but] I hope in Cambodia we will be more accepted and better off.”

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak has said that if they are in Cambodia and ar Khmers, they have an automatic right to citizenship, but also, earlier this month, that the arrivals had not yet been clearly identified as ethnic Khmers.

He did not detail exactly what the identification process involved.

“The asylum seekers must realise that the right for asylum is no longer under the authorisation of the UNHCR,” he said.

The UNHCR could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR spokeswoman in Bangkok, said on December 15 that the deportees had been at various stages of their asylum applications at the time of their deportation from Thailand.

She said the UNHCR regarded their deportation as a “serious matter” and had taken up the issue with the government in Bangkok.

“Our position is that no asylum seekers should be deported from Thailand unless their appeals have been processed and it has been properly established that they do not require international protection,” she said at the time.

She went on to add that there are “orderly procedures” for returning unsuccessful applicants to their countries of origin.

Striking similarities
The plight of the recent arrivals to Phnom Penh follows the deportation of 54 Khmer Krom, also by Thai police, in June.

Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organisation, said the 54 were subsequently smuggled back into Thailand to make another bid for asylum. He said “more than 10” of the current deportees were also deported in June.



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