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Refugees win recognition after 35 years

NEARLY 300 former Cambodian nationals have received citizenship in Vietnam more than 35 years after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime, the United Nations refugee agency said.

In a statement on Monday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said 287 people received their nationalisation papers at a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City on Friday, granting them basic rights under Vietnamese law.

The group is part of a total of 2,357 Cambodians who fled the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and settled in Vietnam, learning the language and integrating into the local community. According to UNHCR, they have been living at a refugee camp set up by the agency in 1980.

“This sets an excellent example in the region for resolving statelessness,” Thomas Vargas, UNHCR’s regional protection adviser, was quoted as saying at the ceremony.

Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR’s Asia spokeswoman, said the group, who are mostly of Chinese ancestry, were disowned by the Cambodian government after leaving the country and cast into a stateless limbo inside Vietnam.

She said they were unable to apply for Vietnamese citizenship because of old regulations that required all applicants to hold citizenship.
“They were caught in a Catch-22,” McKinsey said. “After they fled Cambodia, Cambodia disowned them.”

She said that because of recent changes to Vietnamese laws, stateless persons – including thousands of women made stateless after they married and divorced foreign men – can now apply for citizenship.

“Statelessness is really a tragic situation,” she said, “so we were glad that Vietnam has taken steps to help these people.”

She said the rest of the group had been approved to receive their papers later in the year.

Denise Coughlan, the director of Jesuit Refugee Services, said many Cambodian citizens fled the country during the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge.

But although official agreements have allowed the return of Vietnamese refugees who fled after the Vietnam War, similar arrangements were never made for Cambodians who ended up in Vietnam, she said.

“There was never any comprehensive settlement for Cambodians residing in Vietnam,” she said. “It sounds like good news that Vietnam is recognising them.”

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