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Nigerians claim cultural bias

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Congregants worship during a service at the Wonders Harvest Church, a predominantly Nigerian congregation in Chamkarmon district.

Community leaders say govt unfairly targets Nigerians for visa violations and fees while limiting employment opportunities within the Kingdom.

I’d say that one out of 10 schools would be ready to take on an african.

A FIERY figure behind the pulpit, evangelist Prince Osang Joshua strikes a quieter note in person, relaxing in his small office at the back of the Wonders Harvest Church in Chamkarmon district.

Founded with his wife Fatima in 2007, the church is one of several small Pentecostal congregations serving the spiritual needs of Phnom Penh’s growing Nigerian community. But following a recent series of raids on Nigerian residents – including one on a different house of worship in August – the church services, a noisy mix of African chants and American South gospel sermonising, have begun to incorporate more worldly concerns.

Following a recent spate of police raids and visa complications that have drawn accusations of racism from some Africans, Joshua said the local Nigerian community – the largest African nationality in the country – was falling victim to the bad deeds of a minority.

“Just like in my country Nigeria, there are good people and there are bad people,” he said.

Joshua’s sermons, delivered in a mix of English and the Nigerian Ebo language, touch on many of the issues facing new Nigerian arrivals – such as finding work, avoiding visa complications and forming a “vision” for their lives in Cambodia.

“We try to advise [Nigerians] not to overstay their visas. We try to guide them to make sure they don’t overstay, and if they do overstay, what is the best possible means [of addressing it],” he said.

Although the Kingdom has long been known for its liberal visa-issuance policy, other Nigerians said the last year has seen an unexplained tightening of visa restrictions.

On August 2, armed police raided the Christ Embassy, a house of worship in Chamkarmon district, and detained 57 members of the predominantly Nigerian congregation for questioning. The sting followed the arrest of three Nigerians a further 20 Africans – most of whom were found to have overstayed their visas – only months before.

Turning the screws
Gabriel Ken Gadaffi, the president of the Nigerian Community Association (NCA) in Cambodia, which represents around 150 of the country’s
estimated 600 Nigerian residents, said that although business and tourist visas were usually issued a month at a time, many Nigerians had
reported to him that they were only being granted entry for a week or two. (Disclosure: Gadaffi is a frequent contributor to the Post).

“It can be very difficult for someone who comes as a tourist or to find a job – he can’t do that in a week or two weeks,” he said. “Then they find themselves stuck.”

Others said that Cambodian immigration officials were requesting large cash bribes for standard-issue visas. Emmanuel Tony Jackson, who runs an educational consultancy and is also the NCA’s vice-president, said visas were now the “main problem” facing the community.

“Immigration [officers] at the airport make Nigerians pay a lot of money, and the prices are exorbitant: They pay $400 or $500 to gain entry.”

Bede Uwalaka, who has been living in Cambodia since 1999, said that in the past year he had faced unprecedented problems renewing his visa and those of his wife and two children. He said that the government could lose valuable contributions if the issue is not dealt with.

“The Ministry of Interior has the jurisdiction to determine how to issue visas, but those who are rejected should receive a plain reason why they have been rejected,” said Uwalaka, an English teacher and the director of marketing and liaison at Action for Health, a local NGO.

Others, however, said the recent series of raids are underpinned by prejudice against black Africans. Following the Christ Embassy raid last month, church members, including pastor Lenee Lahben, decried the action as “racist”.

Gadaffi also cited the difficulty experienced by Nigerians seeking work as English teachers, saying Cambodian schools often associate white skin with English proficiency.

“From my own experience, the schools do not consider your intellectual ability,” said Gadaffi. “I’d say that one out of 10 schools would be ready to take on an African.”

Cambodian officials said the law laid down clear guidelines for all foreigners, saying recent stings had only involved clear cases of drug trafficking and visa violations.

“The behaviour of Nigerian people is noisy, which is different to Cambodian culture,” said Mom Sitha, director of the Foreigner Office of the Phnom Penh Municipality, but denied that Nigerians were being unfairly targeted by the police.

“We have explained that they can stay in Cambodia only if they have ... a visa permitting them to live in Cambodia.”

Sona Soth, director of Phnom Penh International Airport, said he there had been no formal complaints about the behaviour of immigration officers, despite rumours that some foreigners were forced to pay bribes to gain visas.

Either way, Gadaffi said, it was important for police to judge actions rather than skin colour when dealing with legal issues.

“Look at the name, don’t look at the nationality,” he said. “Around the world, Nigerians are doing great things.”

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