Foreign minister Prak Sokhonn has urged the US to consider lifting “unjustly imposed” visa restrictions for Cambodian foreign ministry officials as retaliation to the deportation agreement, in which the US accused Cambodia of being “uncooperative”.

“His Excellency Prak Sokhonn sought the US’ reconsideration of unjustly imposed visa restrictions related to the repatriation issue, while reassuring his American counterpart of Cambodia’s full cooperation on the process,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation press statement regarding the May 13 meeting between Sokhonn and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The visa restriction has been imposed on foreign ministry employees with the rank of director-general and above since 2017, on the grounds that Cambodia has “unreasonably [delayed] accepting its citizens who are ordered removed”, according to a memo issued by the US Department of State.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week that the continuation of visa denial for the officials is “unjust” as Cambodia has been actively implementing the agreement by accepting hundreds of deportees.

Hun Sen said while meeting with compatriots in Washington that Cambodia had merely requested several amendments on “humanitarian” grounds, after their removal had driven some Cambodian deportees to suicide.

“At this hour, the US should resume the issuing of visas because Cambodia has been enforcing the existing agreement,” Hun Sen said at the time, adding that the sanctions were still a “big obstacle” for the Cambodian foreign ministry.

According to the NGO Advancement Project, Cambodia discussed the deportation issue with the US in July 2017, with the Cambodian delegation highlighting that those who would be forcibly deported had “already paid their debt to society” by serving time in prison, and that the removal would separate them from their families and stripped them of the rights to visit close relatives in the US. Deportation would also make it challenging for them to integrate into Cambodian society, as most deportees would not have set foot in the country since they were children or speak the language.

The Cambodian delegation noted that four people “forcibly deported” to Cambodia had already died by suicide then.

Nevertheless, the administration of former US President Donald Trump subsequently issued visa sanctions against Cambodia and several other countries for what they called a refusal to accept forced returns of their nationals.

Although the sanctions have been in place since September 2017, Cambodia had received a number of deportees from the US in the two and a half years preceding the global outbreak of Covid-19.

In April 2018, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 43 Cambodian-Americans – the largest group to be deported in one day since the repatriation of Cambodian nationals began over a decade ago.

In December 17 of that year, 36 Cambodian refugees were deported on a single flight, according to a June report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

Then in July 2019, another group of 37 Cambodian-Americans arrived in the Kingdom. The latest group to arrive when the Covid-19 pandemic started was that of 25 deportees who arrived in Phnom Penh in January 2020.

Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organisation (KVAO) spokesman Bill Herod told The Post in 2020 that the latest deportations brought the total number of deportees from the US to 768.

Since the KVAO’s launch in 2002, all Cambodian deportees from the US have arrived in the Kingdom through the programme.

According to AAJC, the removals to Cambodia increased by 279 per cent from 2017 to 2018. It said that there are currently approximately 1,900 Cambodian nationals present in the US with a final order of removal.

In response to questions on the continued enforcement of the sanctions, US embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier told The Post on May 16 that the pace of removals since 2020 has not been adequate, given the adjustments that had been made available on account of the pandemic.

“Since October 2020, Cambodia has conducted only one citizenship verification interview and accepted only two removals – from among more than 1,800 individuals ordered removed.

“The US offered options to conduct citizenship verification, including virtual interviews. During the pandemic, many other countries conducted such virtual interviews in order to document and accept removals of their citizens.”

He said that every country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals and that the US “routinely cooperates” with the Cambodian government to document and accept the return of US citizens.

But last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Cambodia had actually conducted virtual interviews and that a few hundred Cambodian nationals were being processed to be deported imminently.

Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun said the US sanctions so far demonstrate how strictly and coldly the US enforces their immigration law, without taking into consideration human factors such as family relationships and ties.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, agreed, saying the US should consider compassionate exemptions for Cambodians who have built a life in the US.

“If we talk about human rights, I think the US should be mindful [and consider that] some Cambodian citizens had lived there and were even born there, in the US,” he said.

“Nevertheless, our government had been fully cooperative with the US in receiving our citizens back through repatriation by the US side.

“So they should consider lifting this restriction, partly also to strengthen bilateral relations, as both governments have been trying to improve their relations though upgrading their ties,” he said, in reference to the recent agreement by ASEAN and the US on elevating their ties to that of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Separately, Sokhonn and Blinken acknowledged the continued cooperation between Cambodia and the US in various areas, such as increasing economic exchange, health, education, mine clearance, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, cultural heritage protection and people-to-people exchange.

“[Sokhonn] underlined that trade is the best example of positive cooperation between our two countries, and expressed hope that the GSP [Generalised System of Preferences] scheme will be soon renewed to further support the economic development and Cambodian workers in the garment, footwear and travel goods sectors, the majority of which are women,” the press statement said.

Blinken was said to have expressed readiness on the part of the US to further support Cambodia’s development, and to actively work with the country to enhance political security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation.

Sokhonn told his US counterpart that the Cambodian government was fully committed to an inclusive political process and freedom of expression. He noted that it has been made evident through multi-party elections that have been held regularly since the early 1990s, “which have been assessed as free and fair by tens of thousands of local and international observers”.

Cambodia, he said, is also home to hundreds of media establishments, has wide social media penetration, and allows for the existence of trade unions to uphold workers’ rights as well as NGOs and civil society organisations to promote people’s rights and welfare.

Sokhonn also sought to allay US concern about the development of Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. He said the renovation of the base “serves solely to strengthen Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat crimes”, and underlined that Cambodia would not permit foreign military bases or presence on its soil as enshrined in the Constitution.