When Dang Chally arrived in Cambodia from the United States in 2011, people looked at him like a foreigner. What differentiated him from the scores of other foreigners in the Kingdom was his Cambodian citizenship, and the fact he was forbidden from returning to the place where he grew up.
Chally and the roughly 600 Cambodian-Americans like him had their lives altered by a 2002 agreement between Cambodia and the US that allows for the repatriation of Cambodian citizens who commit a crime in the US.
Deportees are often those born in refugee camps, who grew up in the US, then were deported after serving a prison sentence. Many have never been to Cambodia, don’t speak Khmer and have a tough time integrating.
“When we arrived, we weren’t recognised as Khmer. So we’re forced into a grey area,” Chally said as he stood in front of the German cultural centre, Meta House, on Thursday evening.
He was joined by an international delegation from the One Love Movement, a grassroots organisation that works for the release of Cambodian-Americans from the system of deportation, which visited Cambodia this month.
The group gathered at Meta House on Thursday to show a new Dateline documentary titled Kicked Back to Cambodia, which calls attention to the plight of deportees.
“It’s a violation of human rights. People are separated from their families after already having served time,” one delegation member said prior to the screening.
Last year, One Love began working to amend the Cambodia-US repatriation agreement. All it would take is for one side to cancel the deal, they say.
“The agreement could be easy to change, because it doesn’t need congressional approval to modify,” said Anoop Prasad, an attorney who represents Cambodians facing deportation from the US. “Either the Cambodian government can suspend the agreement or the State Department can.”
But that doesn’t mean One Love is carrying outsized expectations for intervention locally.
“The delegation isn’t here to pressure anyone. It makes sense for the Cambodian government to know how wrong it is to deport people and separate them from their families,” said Kalvin Heng, a coordinator with the project. (Heng also works at the Post as a marketing director.)
“The Cambodian government is aware of the situation. They want to work with the US to maybe change or revise the repatriation agreement on a more humanitarian level. The US has to be responsible for their refugees.”
One Love’s mission also includes legal support for deportees.
“We are reviewing cases to see if people can reopen their deportation orders under existing US immigration law,” said Prasad, who met with 30 people in three days last week. Many of the deportees couldn’t access a lawyer, and some of their crimes didn’t warrant deportation under US law, he added.
For Donald Anthonyson, a delegation member from Antigua who has worked with immigrants in New York for over two decades, Cambodians in the US face a unique scenario.
“They didn’t just get on a plane and come to America; they were bombed here,” Anthonyson said, noting that many Americans are unaware of their country’s military intervention in Cambodia. A lot of Cambodian refugees were resettled in inner-city areas inundated with gang violence, he added.
While the number of deportations spiked under President Barack Obama, some members of One Love said they doubt the situation will improve under president-elect Donald Trump.
“For foreign communities, Trump will be awful,” Prasad said. “But Cambodians have been demonised by both [political] parties.”