Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation have expressed frustration with the continued rejections of their visa applications by the US embassy’s consular office stemming from a decision by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2017 as a quid pro quo for Cambodia’s previous refusal to accept Cambodian deportees.
A senior ministry official, who asked not to be named, told The Post that he received a letter from the consular office of the US embassy in Phnom Penh, informing him that applications for B1 and B2 visas for officials from the foreign ministry had been rejected. The reason of the denial was given as Cambodia’s delay in accepting citizens who had been deported from the US on the basis of criminal activity, a ban which has been in place since 2017.
In the letter, which has been seen by The Post, the consular office said it was “unable to issue a visa for the applicant because ‘visa issuance has temporarily been discontinued under Section 243(d) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.’”
The letter said that the Secretary of Homeland Security had notified the Secretary of State that Cambodia “denies or unreasonably delays accepting the return of its citizens, subjects, nationals or residents subject to deportation from the US.
“The Secretary of State has ordered consular officers in Cambodia to discontinue granting B1, B2, and B1/B2 visas for Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees, with the rank of Director General and above, and their families.”
The letter said that the issuance of the officials’ visas had been “suspended” as a result of the Secretary’s order, and that there would be no recourse to appeal the decision nor seek a refund for the visa application fee.
It stated that the normal issuance of visas will resume “only when the Secretary of Homeland Security notifies the Secretary of State that Cambodia has complied with US requests relating to acceptance of its national or nationals.”
In 2000, Cambodia and the US signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) concerning the repatriation of each other’s nationals should they fail to obtain citizenship in the other country.
Cambodia has resumed receiving its deported citizens from the US in recent years. In January 2020, 25 deported Cambodians arrived in Phnom Penh, the last batch to arrive since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Since 2002, nearly 800 Cambodians have been repatriated, according to the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organisation, an NGO that helps deportees re-integrate into Cambodian society.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, a total of 81 Cambodians were removed from the US in 2019, 71 as a result of criminal activity.
In October 2020, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng met with US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy to discuss the resumption of the deportations after the pandemic. Kheng told Murphy that Cambodia was “willing to continue” with the agreement, and that though Covid-19 has caused delays in repatriations, “the principle and political will remain unchanged”.
But though the repatriations have resumed, Cambodian officials said that their applications for US visas have only resulted in refusals and a loss of their $200 application fee.
Asked why the visa denials have continued even after the repatriations had resumed, US embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier declined to comment, repeating the Department of Homeland Security’s line that “Cambodia denies or unreasonably delays accepting its citizens who are ordered removed.
“This policy started in 2017, and there have been no changes. Since 2017, we [have] stopped giving tourist visas to Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees with the rank of Director General and above, for the reasons I stated,” he said.
The foreign affairs ministry official likened the visa rejections to “taking Cambodia foreign affairs officials hostage in exchange for the [Cambodian citizens’] removal [from the US].”
Political analyst Yang Pov said that the continuation of the ban will only hinder cooperation between the two countries, especially the US-ASEAN Special Meeting this year, which may be attended by several foreign affairs ministry officials.
Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun said that the relationship between the US and Cambodia has “not been smooth” lately due to conflicting views on several issues, including the repatriation of Cambodian people from the US.
“I think this [visa rejection] is pressure to push Cambodia to offer a suitable reason for its own refusal to accept Cambodians deported from the US and start doing so,” he said.