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Immigrant census fears

Immigrant census fears

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Police write down details of immigrants in Phnom Penh July 12.

H

uman rights groups have expressed concern over the potential for abuse in the govern-ment's

drive to register immigrants that began June 6.

Dislike for ethnic Vietnamese, who make up the country's largest immigrant population,

has regularly been used by some politicians as a populist measure.

Cambodia's first foreigner census was announced by co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng

at a meeting in May. Police said the job of collecting personal information, thumb-prints

and photographs of immigrants across the Kingdom would be finished by the end of

July. Officials maintained they were counting all immigrants, not just ethnic Vietnamese.

Bith Kim Hong, who is on the MoI's census committee and is deputy commissioner of

Phnom Penh's municipal police, said the census began by registering foreign immigrants,

and would move on to count all foreigners living in Cambodia. He said the committee

would decide who was legally here and who was not. His job was simply to collect

the data and pass it to the MoI.

"We're doing the census to strengthen the immigration law," he said. "The

main purpose is to curb the illegal infiltration of foreigners, safeguarding foreigners,

and curbing Mafia from infiltrating to carry out [illegal] activities."

However Thun Saray from human rights NGO ADHOC said he was concerned at the timing

of the exercise.

"The government may try to use the order to get popularity from the people because

we're approaching the [July] 2003 election," he said, adding that it might "not

be a real census - just a show census".

Government officials said once the number of immigrants was tallied, the government

would determine who had entered Cambodia illegally and deport them. MoI spokesman

Khieu Sopheak said the census was being done because the government needs "real

statistics" for economic planning.

But Dr Lao Mong Hay from the Center for Social Development (CSD) said the speedy

implementation of the study did not provide assurances against abuses.

"In the old days, there was extortion of illegal immigrants and then they didn't

appear in statistics," said Mong Hay.

Thun Sary also expressed concern that officials would abuse their power during the

census. Officials at human rights NGO Licadho said they had not received any complaints

about abuse.

"We hope that the authorities will ensure accountability and transparency and

that no person will be exploited or subject to extortion or abuse in the process,"

said acting director Naly Pilorge.

The census committee's Kim Hong had not heard of any abuses.

However when the Post observed the registration process in a Phnom Penh commune July

12 the Vietnamese immigrants were photographed by police holding numbers against

their chests in the same manner as prisoners. Deputy chief of cabinet for the municipality,

Sok Lakena, said that was to avoid people registering twice.

"We take their photos to avoid any mistakes with the figures," he explained.

"If they move to a new place and change their names, we can still track them

with their photos. Sometimes there is the same name, but different photos."

None of the Vietnamese immigrants who spoke to the Post expressed concern at possible

abuse or deportation, but they did say they were required to pay 5,000 riel to have

their picture taken. That conflicted with assurances given by Kim Hong who said there

should be no charge.

"I will investigate that," he said when the Post told him. "The MoI

has paid for the cost of photographing immigrants."

If each of the 17,000 Vietnamese registered

in Phnom Penh so far have had to pay, that amounts to around $20,000 in 'tea money'

for officials.

Mong Hay said he was glad the government had decided to undertake a census as there

was growing concern among Cambodians over the influx of immigrants from Vietnam and

China. However he warned that if it was not done in a systematic way, "the results

will not be convincing".

An effective census required set criteria based on laws, as well as time and human

resources, he said, but this "sensitive issue" had not been done according

to democratic principles, and should have been announced in Parliament.

Mong Hay also drew a link between the census and the 14 trafficked Vietnamese girls

currently imprisoned under immigration laws. Those cracking down on immigrants, he

said, had not thought through how to determine who was illegal.

"Nationality laws and immigration laws should be the basis for determining the

criteria for who's legal and illegal," he added.

It is not the first time the government has carried out a nationwide census. The

General Population Census of Cambodia 1998, which included all residents in Cambodia,

asked for data on such aspects as mother tongue and birth place. Those results were

never released.

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