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Govt on the lookout for Afghan refugees

Govt on the lookout for Afghan refugees

A Cambodian government source involved in human trafficking issues has said the government

has been carefully scrutinizing Afghan arrivals in the aftermath of the attacks on

the United States.

"It's hard to say if more asylum seekers will transit through Cambodia because

of what's happening in Central Asia. We had been thinking that the number of Afghans

coming here would increase, but right now there's not a really significant change

in arrivals," he said.

Even before the current conflict Afghanistan was one of the world's major sources

of refugees. In July this year 241 asylum seekers from Pakistan and Afghanistan were

set to board an Indonesian owned logging vessel in Sihanoukville for the 11 day journey

to Australia when police swooped.

The asylum seekers had been flown by a human smuggling ring to Phnom Penh from Bangkok,

Singapore and Hong Kong under legal visas. After their capture most of the group

opted to return to Pakistan where a number indicated that they would try illegal

immigration again, said Nenette Motus of the International Organization for Migration

(IOM).

Graham Shaw of UN crime control agency UNODCCP, said Sihanoukville was only one option

for the smugglers. "There are plenty of places where you can get people out

of this country and there would be dozens of routes that go through Cambodia,"

he said.

"It's not the geographical distance that makes a particular route attractive,

it's the ease with which you can move people. It's clear that Cambodia is still a

weak link and is one of a group of countries attractive to traffickers," he

said.

A lack of appropriate legislation means the seven gang members responsible for the

Sihanoukville group can only be charged with minor visa related offenses.

"The same gangs that are involved in the movement of drugs are usually involved

in people smuggling and we know that Cambodia has a major problem with drug trafficking

and therefore with human trafficking also," Shaw said.

Twelve of the group applied for asylum in Cambodia with a decision expected before

October 19. Motus said that another 25 are still "in limbo" without valid

visas for either Cambodia or Pakistan.

Referring to the seizure, Shaw said "our educated guess is that about the same

number of people transit through Cambodia each month [but] you're never going to

get any hard and fast figures with criminal activity".

Among those transiting through Cambodia are some people from Afghanistan, said Shaw,

adding it was likely the conflict would lead to a short term increase.

"There are definitely people in those camps [in Pakistan] now drumming up business,"

he said, adding that they typically offered Australia as a destination in exchange

for aroundUS$10,000.

An Australian embassy official said that the seizure had already had an effect on

the number of arrivals from Afghanistan.

"There had been a surge [in airport arrivals by Afghan nationals] in the three

months prior to that incident," the official said.

Shaw agreed but said there was still a long way to go.

"This recent seizure will make them look at the Cambodian option again. Maybe

in twenty years we'll turn around and say that was the point when it started to change,"

he said.

David Welin of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that

Cambodia had received a small number of asylum applications from Afghanis over the

past few years.

"The cases we've seen are primarily families, individuals or very small groups,"

he said, adding that UNHCR was "following the movement of people out of Afghanistan

very closely, so contingency plans are being drawn up should we see a mass exodus.

In Cambodia we have the capacity to deal with a slight increase but it's way too

early to expect a dramatic increase," said Welin.

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