Bill dodges citizenship issue
T he much-awaited draft immigration law, which will be submitted
to the National Assembly for a vote when it reconvenes in April, has not dealt
with the contentious issues of nationality and citizenship, according to sources
at the Ministry of the Interior. These issues will be dealt with in a separate
law yet to be drafted.
The new immigration law was expected to determine
how many of the estimated 200,000 to 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, as
well as other ethnic minorities, would be entitled to Cambodian citizenship.
It was also expected to affect the status of the approximately 5,000
Vietnamese refugees who fled Khmer Rouge attacks in the run up to the elections
and are now stuck on the border with Vietnam.
The draft law deals purely
with immigration issues, like deportation and procedures for issuing visas to
foreigners. Government sources say a directorate for immigration will probably
be set up under the Ministry of Interior to look after these issues.
could take a few months after the passing of the law for the directorate to
start functioning, if the present draft is accepted. The law also deals with
stricter border control, penal provisions for illegal entrants and also the
issue of corrupt border guards who accept gold in return for passage across the
The source at the Ministry of Interior stressed that the proposed
immigration law is a liberal one, "not one aimed at keeping foreigners out." He
added that it would not violate any of the international covenants to which
Cambodia is a party.
The thorny citizenship issue is now a matter of
debate and speculation - and one of the most pressing questions before the
"In practice, a law defining who is entitled to citizenship
is drafted first, and the entry and exit of foreigners dealt with later," says
one human rights observer.
In most countries, a person is entitled to
citizenship if he or she is born in a country, or is directly related by blood
to someone who is a citizen. This would mean any ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese or
Khmer born in the country will be entitled to citizenship, as would his or her
parents and children.
Citizenship can also be gained by naturalization,
when a person who has lived in a country for the required length of
time-normally 5 to 7 years- and has been law-abiding, can be granted
citizenship. Government sources say the eventual nationality law will follow
both these standards.
The problem for the government is that a
substantial number of people, especially those born before 1975, will probably
not have any birth certificates because most records were destroyed during the
Khmer Rouge years. For Vietnamese and other ethnic minorities who wish to be
naturalized, there is again little documentary proof to prove the period of
Many people also possess several identity cards-State of
Cambodia (SOC) identity cards, UNTAC election cards and cards from the various
border camps. One solution being proposed within the government is to issue a
new identity card to anyone who qualifies to be a citizen, taking all the above
cards as evidence of residence or birth.
However, a person possessing an
earlier identity card would not automatically qualify, according to the Ministry
of Interior source. The government could possibly use a procedure similar to the
one used to issue UNTAC election cards: detailed questioning and corroboration.
"If a person claims to have lived in Siem Reap since the seventies, we
could question him or her on who the governor was, who the headmaster of their
school was, what important events happened then," the source said. "If they can
answer everything correctly and also possess a SOC and election card, we could
assume they were telling the truth."
The source admits that the method
could also be falsified, alleging that several SOC identity cards and UNTAC
election cards were given to "persons who were actually foreigners." He points
to a recent instance when persons arrested in Japan were found to have Cambodian
passports issued by the SOC government, when in fact they were from Thailand and
Issuing new cards could take very long, and is still only being
It is seen by some observers as the only way to a "non-racial
solution" to the nationality question that was recently promised by Foreign
Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh.
As of now, the immigration law will
leave this question untouched. The nationality issue was dealt with earlier
under SOC laws, which analysts say were very liberal.
continuance of this trend would likely be opposed by several political parties.
"Both the BLDP and some elements in FUNCINPEC will oppose provisions seen as
liberal towards the Vietnamese," says an observer. But the government source
also points out that "we have to keep in mind our relations with Vietnam: we do
not want any more trouble with our neighbors."
Little is known about when
the big question will finally be dealt with. Asked when the nationality issue
would finally be resolved, the source said : "Another two to three years
maybe... definitely before the next election."