BLACKMARKET trading in Cambodian and Western passports is brisk as foreigners take
advantage of Cambodia's unsophisticated entry and exit controls.
The trafficking in genuine passports has gained ground since 1993, ironically as
Cambodia has opened its gates to attract tourist dollars, observers say.
They say the ease with which non-Cambodians can pass in and out of the country has
left its frontiers and ports wide open to abuse by foreigners. These include economic
migrants, political refugees, and even criminals.
Since the Ministry of Interior (MOI) started to issue standard Kingdom of Cambodia
passports in August 1995, reports have surfaced as far afield as France and the United
States about non-Cambodian Chinese - originating from mainland China, Hong Kong,
and Taiwan - traveling on such passports.
"Over the past year, we have received six complaints from Macau police, and
one from the Singaporean embassy in Phnom Penh, about Chinese trying to obtain work
permits or visas, using Kingdom of Cambodia passports," says Pech Sokhem, an
official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).
"Their main objective is to go to third countries," he adds. "Now
that Cambodia is no longer internationally blacklisted, with new Cambodian passports
it is easier to obtain visas for other countries than with passports from the People's
Republic of China."
According to the Phnom Penh Interpol office, non-Cambodian holders of MOI passports
also include a member of the Hong Kong-based K-14 triad, who is wanted in connection
with a 1991 heist at Kai Tak international airport in which $17 million was stolen.
"We do not know where he is right now, but we have learned he has been traveling
in and out of Cambodia on a Cambodian passport," says Gen Skadavy, chief of
the local branch.
Skadavy explains that Cambodians, who are normally required to pay $100 for a passport,
are willing to sell them to foreigners for as high as $2,000, and then claim that
their passports have been lost or stolen.
But, according to Sokhem, the illicit trade in passports is largely a question of
"The main problem is dishonesty of officials who are supposed to be carrying
out their duties of public office," he says.
He claims "strict checks-and-balances" have ensured that his ministry,
which has been issuing Service and Diplomatic passports since Nov 1994, is clean.
The problem has arisen only since last year, he says, when MOI began to issue passports.
Sokhem explains that loopholes exist at the MOI, enabling applicants to avoid face-to-face
interviews, the critical link in preventing such meddling. Without naming anyone,
he says high-ranking MOI officials are authorized to order that interviews be waived.
Sokhem also criticizes Interior for responding slowly to an MOFA request - following
a complaint sent by the Singaporeans in May - to look into how 100 blank passports
went missing from the MOI last year.
"It took them three months to reply to our request," he says. "In
their letter to us, they only reiterated the known fact that the 100 passports, which
were stolen last year, were now null-and-void - that's all."
At press time, passport officials from Interior were unavailable for comment.
Both Sokem and Skadavy say that the problem is compounded because there are no computers
in place at Cambodian entrances and exits.
The ease with which foreigners can obtain one-month visas at Pochentong airport for
$20, they say, further complicates matters.
Once a foreigner lands in Cambodia, they can drop out of sight of the local authorities
for as long as a year.
Normally, visas are issued by consulates and embassies worldwide which carry out
background checks on applicants.
"We are thinking about proposing to the Council of Ministers to re-think the
policy of granting visas at the airport, because it is too risky for our national
security," said Sokhem.
Not only have Chinese nationals been able to obtain Cambodian passports, there has
been no let-up in migrants and refugees of other nationalities - Bangladeshis, Iraqis,
and Sri Lankans in particular - exploiting the situation.
Peter van der Vaart, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) local representative
says that Cambodia is part of an illicit network for running migrants and refugees
- via circuitous routes - to Europe, Australia, and the United States.
At least once a month over the past year, groups of up to four Sri Lankans have landed
at Pochentong airport on commercial flights out of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore,
"reluctantly" asking for asylum in Cambodia.
Without specifying a number, he says "quite a few" have disappeared since
seeking UNHCR assistance.
"These people are served by middlemen who organize their passage to the West,"
he says. "These entrepreneurs use all kinds of routes to get their clients to
"These people earn a lot of money out of these poor people," adds van der
Vaart. "They are very unscrupulous."
According to one expatriate, who has closely watched the comings-and-goings of South
and Southwest Asians over the past two years, and who requested anonymity, they spend
the duration of their stay in Cambodia, procuring Western passports for themselves.
These are much more expensive than Cambodian ones, he says, but carry fewer inherent
"They obtain a one-month visa to enter Cambodia, stay around for a while, then
buy passports from Westerners who come here without a penny in their pockets,"
he says. "The going rate for an American passport is $25,000."