It took three illegal border crossings, several bribed officials and six months in an overcrowded detention centre before Mohammed Ibrahim* finally arrived in Cambodia.
Four years later, the ethnic Rohingya, a victim of violence and oppression in strife-torn Rakhine state in Myanmar’s west, is one of the Kingdom’s few recognised refugees.
While the turmoil of his homeland is behind him, his struggle for basic rights is not. He remains a citizen of no country and it is this statelessness that is proving a barrier to him finding formal employment and discovering a sense of belonging.
“This life in Cambodia is not enduring for Rohingya. This life is not enduring for me,” the 32-year-old told the Post.
Concerns over the treatment of refugees in Cambodia surfaced again last month when Foreign Minister Hor Namhong announced that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had asked his government to consider resettling refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
According to Sister Denise Coghlan, whose organisation Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) has been assisting Rohingya asylum seekers in the Kingdom since 2009, being granted refugee status in Cambodia doesn’t assure someone a life worth living.
“What many don’t understand is that while becoming a recognised refugee is the first step of the process that will allow you to stay here – it’s not necessarily the beginning of a process that guarantees access to basic human rights,” she said.
According to JRS briefing papers from 2013, statelessness can lead to a number of rights restrictions, including limited access to healthcare and education.
Asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work while their case is being processed, while for recognised refugees, employment is a more complicated matter.
“Refugees who acquire status have the same rights as ‘legal foreign immigrants’ which allows them to work. However, most refugees are unable to meet the requirements of the Labor Law (such as a valid passport or residency card) to obtain a work permit or employment card,” one paper says.
“This means it is extremely difficult for asylum seekers and refugees to find employment in Cambodia outside of self-employment.”
It took three years before Ibrahim was recognised as a refugee. Even now, he still confronts daily barriers, including when it comes to finding formal employment or supporting his family back home.
“[My refugee card is] not a residence card or passport, so I’m still not even allowed to send money to my family.”
So Ibrahim survives by selling rotis – a type of flatbread popular on the capital’s sun-soaked streets – from a cart.
“How can I think about the future when I have to think about where my food will come from next? I want to find a better life,” he said.
Strangers in their own land
The Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim minority, are concentrated mainly in Rakhine state.
Although they have called the state home for generations, Myanmar’s government considers them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Escalating violence has led to the displacement of thousands.
For Ibrahim, his life back home was lived under constant hardship and fear of death; ultimately, these realities drove him out.
“If I had stayed in Rakhine, I would have been killed. I was worked like a slave by government soldiers before I ran away,” he said, explaining that his village was forced to supply a monthly quota of labourers to the Nasaka border security police.
When a Nasaka soldier beat him after he became too sick to work, Ibrahim fled with the help of his uncle, who arranged a spot for him on a boat to Thailand for about $15.
“That night, the Nasaka came to my home and beat my family because I had escaped,” he said.
After six months in an immigration detention centre, a forced deportation back to Myanmar and a second illegal border crossing, Ibrahim snuck into Cambodia a year later – an act, he said, that was driven by desperation.
The few, the desperate
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) latest tally, made in December, there are 68 recognised refugees and 12 asylum seekers living in Cambodia.
While there is no breakdown by nationality or ethnicity, 21 of the 68 refugees are Rohingya, said Coghlan from JRS.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in organised sectors such as the garment industry – and refugees often lack the documents that enable them to do so – but some find a way.
Moen Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, said he had been told of instances of Rohingya refugees working in factories since 2012.
“What we don’t know is if [these] refugees or migrant workers have access to labour law protections or are experiencing forced labour,” Tola said. For that reason, he added, the government must ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are better protected.
“It doesn’t matter what country these people are coming from, because they are undertaking all the risks. They deserve and need protection under our labour laws.”
After entering Cambodia, asylum seekers are expected to file their cases with the Ministry of Interior’s Refugee Office for assessment.
The first two required steps to becoming a recognised refugee are a counselling session with the Refugee Office and the filling out of an application form.
During a recent visit to the Ministry of Interior, Post reporters found that such applications were available only in Khmer. Staff were willing to provide a copy, but said each costs $2.50.
After the Refugee Office accepts a case, the asylum seeker is then issued a “preliminary stay permit” that requires renewal each month until a decision about their application is reached.
The application process is long and confusing for asylum seekers, who are provided little information along the way, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“It’s really a mystery why the Cambodian government’s basic procedures for receiving, assessing and making a determination of refugee status takes so long,” he wrote in an email.
“The process is not readily transparent to the asylum seekers, or their advocates who are on the outside looking in.”
Without the support of these advocates, such as JRS, Ibrahim believes he would not have survived the three years it took the Refugee Office to grant him status.
JRS, he added, provided him a microfinance loan that enabled him to set up his roti business.
“How without JRS? We cannot work as asylum seekers, so others [asylum seekers] have to find jobs that aren’t good for them,” he said.
Refugee Office director Teang Sokheng and his deputy, Mom Sophanarith, declined to comment for this story.
Hurdles remain high
Being granted a refugee certificate last year was a big moment for Ibrahim, but he still remains stateless.
Without being a citizen, his movements are restricted and bureaucratic processes are much more arduous. He also lacks a sense of belonging.
Under Cambodia’s Law on Nationality, to gain citizenship through naturalisation a person must be able to “speak Khmer, know Khmer scripts and [have] some knowledge of Khmer history, and prove clear evidence that he/she can … get used to good Khmer custom[s] and tradition[s].”
Citizenship is something that can then only be considered once a person has held a residence card and lived continuously in the Kingdom for seven years.
Several minority rights groups told the Post that they were yet to come across a single case of a refugee gaining citizenship.
“Rohingya refugees are … stateless in Cambodia, because they are not granted Khmer citizenship, even though they have a refugee certificate issued by the Cambodian Refugee Office, said Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Minority Rights Organization.
“All of them now remain in limbo and uncertainty, and Cambodia looks like a prison for them.”
For now, this looks unlikely to change.
In an interview just days before Namhong revealed Australia’s refugee request, government spokesman Phay Siphan told the Post that Cambodia simply didn’t have the money or manpower to deal with refugees.
“Cambodia doesn’t have the resources or experience or finances to take in refugees,” he said.
But diplomatic interests also help form the government’s position.
“We don’t want anyone who will potentially disturb this country’s political climate or relationships with other countries,” Siphan said.
“Cambodia is committed to staying a neutral country, and we won’t take anyone that will potentially disturb that.”
Cambodia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has earned the government criticism in the past.
In December 2009, a group of Muslim Uighurs, including a woman and two children, were deported back to China – at the request of that country’s government.
The group had sought political asylum through the UNHCR, fearing retaliation from Chinese authorities after they witnessed clashes between government security forces and Uighur demonstrators months earlier.
The World Uyghur Congress lists 17 of those deported as still in prison, with sentences ranging from 14 years to life.
According to the UN, Cambodia passed a sub-decree related to refugees the day before the deportations and has handled all matters internally since.
Two days after the deportation, China granted Cambodia a $1.2 billion aid package.
“The problem is the Cambodian government has proven willing to bend rules or look the other way when governments who Cambodia is friendly with pursue their nationals into Cambodia,” HRW’s Robertson said.
“Connected to that, Cambodia’s refugee protection procedures and sub-decree do not comply with international human rights standards, which in turn, gives Cambodia wide discretion to do what it likes with asylum seekers from countries like Vietnam and China,” he added.
The situation may seem bleak for people like Ibrahim, but he is not without hope.
He dreams of travelling to Canada to study and eventually working to raise awareness of his people’s plight.
“I want to go where I can,” he said.
For now, he will continue waiting like the other stateless refugees, living an in-between life shaped by a system that may never deliver.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA AND LAIGNEE BARRON
*Real name changed to protect the identity of Ibrahim’s family members in western Myanmar.