Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Illegal passport trade "threatens security"

Illegal passport trade "threatens security"

Illegal passport trade "threatens security"

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

internal corruption.

"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

their destination."

"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

risks.

"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."

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