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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Refugees out fishing, miss count

Refugees out fishing, miss count

A BOUT 1000 Vietnamese refugees stranded in Chrey Thom risk losing the chance to

prove their Cambodian nationality because they were absent during the official

government head count and registration of refugees which ended in early

February.

The refugees, whose families are mostly still on the border,

were probably in Cambodia fishing or trading, according to people working with

the refugees.

For many months now, refugees have been moving in and out

of Cambodia for trade leaving their boats and families behind, and traveling in

mostly overland, one worker said, but some seem to have left

permanently.

The number of refugees, over 6,000 in 1993, had reduced to

2835 by the time the government counted them on Feb 5. An earlier count taken by

agencies working with the refugees on Jan 20 found a total of 3,953.

The

border police who took the government count told people that they should give

the exact number of families along with documentation, said one

worker.

"The police did not accept the claims of family members who were

away because they could not be verified. The people chose to leave them out

rather than risk the entire family remaining unregistered," he said.

"The

people are very happy that at last the count has been carried out. In contrast

to other parts of the country, where Vietnamese often complain of police

harassment, the people here are very happy with the police," he said.

The

count found 453 families, of which 21 families had idenfification papers proving

their residence in the country before 1970. While 24 families had no papers,

most had SOC papers or UNTAC voter cards.

Meanwhile, a meeting of the

joint commission of Cambodian and Vietnamese experts on the immigration issue

which was supposed to be at the end of February has not yet been held. Lour

Ramin, director of the Department of Immigration in the Ministry of Interior,

said no date has been fixed yet for the meeting.

"The Cambodian side has

already prepared its agenda for the meeting, but I do not know when the

Vietnamese experts will be invited to come to Phnom Penh," he

said.

Another senior official said the delay was because there were "no

easy answers" to the problems in implementing the immigration law.

"The

focus now is on the Chrey Thom refugees and we are optimistic that the problem

will be resolved soom. But that still leaves open the larger question of

Vietnamese in Cambodia."

The government had said there would be no mass

expulsions, no bias in the implementation of the immigration law and full

co-operation with Vietnam. That was positive, he said, but it was difficult to

even discuss these without a nationality law.

The nationality law will

decide whether Vietnamese will be eligible to apply for citizenship on the basis

of birth or residence, and will also decide whether dual citizenship will be

permitted.

The official pointed out that the dual citizenship issue was

also politically sensitive because several FUNCINPEC and BLDP members are

citizens of Western countries like Australia, the US and France.

There

is also the separate question of what will happen to the ethnic Vietnamese who

fled massacres in 1993 along with the Chrey Thom refugees, but went to Vietnam.

UNHCR estimates put the number at around 39,000. Said one aid worker: "There is

no mention anywhere about what will happen to them,even in the statement

released after Prime Minister Ranariddh's visit to Hanoi."

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