FIVE Cambodians, including one woman, arrived in the Kingdom yesterday after being deported from the United States as part of a controversial operation that the American embassy in Phnom Penh described as an example of “excellent bilateral cooperation”.
The new arrivals bring to 234 the number of Cambodians who have been deported from the US as the result of an agreement signed by the two countries in 2002. Only three of those are women.
All the deportees are former legal permanent US residents who have served prison sentences or been given suspended sentences for aggravated felonies, a classification that was expanded in 1996 to include some crimes that were previously misdemeanours.
The five returnees, who arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport at 11:20am and were immediately transferred into the custody of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration Department, were among a group of nearly 50 Cambodians held in the US in advance of being deported.
Activists in two US cities have decried the latest round of deportations. Deported Diaspora, a Boston-based organisation, collected more than 2,000 signatures on a petition that was scheduled to be sent to the US government last week. The petition asked the government to prevent the deportations from proceeding.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Tuesday that about 80 people had attended a rally on Monday to call attention to the case of 35-year-old Hov Ly Kol, who was expected to be deported this week.
But the US embassy said yesterday that the deportations were necessary.
“Every sovereign nation recognises the need to receive their citizens back to their countries, and both the Kingdom of Cambodia and the United States share this commitment,” the embassy said in an emailed statement. The embassy also said it remained “committed to helping the returnees successfully to reintegrate into Cambodian society”.
Cambodian officials have been largely mum on the details of the operation, offering no information about the individual deportees and scant information on how they were being processed.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, predicted on Monday that a group of 10 returnees would arrive this week, but said yesterday that he could not confirm when the other five would arrive.
He acknowledged that it may be difficult for returnees to adjust to life in a new country, but said the Kingdom would “welcome them because they are still Cambodian citizens and they do not have American nationality”.
He referred further questions to the Immigration Department, which referred questions to National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith, who could not be reached for comment.
A deportee who arrived in Cambodia six years ago and went to meet the new arrivals at the Immigration Department facility where they were held yesterday afternoon said “a lot” of returnees end up homeless and jobless. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he accused the US embassy of not doing enough to help deportees adapt to life in Cambodia, a country with which many of them are unfamiliar.
“Most of these guys are shocked, traumatised, separated from their families. Someone has to help these guys stabilise mentally,” he said, and called for the embassy to facilitate reintegration by providing education, job placement and clinical supervision.
As he left the Immigration Department at about 4pm yesterday, Luis Sim, a 43-year-old deportee who was released into the care of family members in Phnom Penh, said he had not been to Cambodia since he was 12.
Though he said he was “very happy to come back”, he also expressed some trepidation. “I don’t know how they live over here,” he said.