A US State Department official said visa sanctions on top Cambodian foreign affairs officials could be lifted “in the near future” if the Cambodian government follows through on promises to begin accepting deportees again.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch, who travelled to Phnom Penh to meet with Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Friday, said at a short press conference that Cambodian officials had been “very supportive in trying to improve the process”.
“I would like to see the sanctions be lifted and Cambodia be cooperative again in taking back their nationals,” Risch said.
Cambodia’s reluctance to issue travel documents for Cambodian citizens convicted of crimes in the US caused a diplomatic rift last year, with the US placing visa sanctions on top Foreign Affairs officials in retaliation.
The repatriation program has been criticised by both immigration advocates and Cambodian officials for being inhumane. Most of the deportees were brought to the US as refugee children fleeing the Khmer Rouge and have spent the vast majority of their lives in the US.
Risch said on Friday that visa sanctions would not be lifted until the US Department of Homeland Security and US Department of State were satisfied that the process was “repeatable, dependable and uniform”.
Bill Herod, the founder of the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), said officials from both sides have told the organisation to prepare for up to 200 returnees this year, an abnormally large number. By comparison, RISC has received some 550 returnees over the past 15 years.
“That will be a new challenge for us,” said Herod, who added that RISC has had to rent more space and hire more employees to prepare for the influx.
Herod said that while it is true that Cambodia is legally obligated to take back its nationals, he wished US authorities would take into account the severity of their crimes and their contributions to the community.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached yesterday.
On Friday, Risch sidestepped questions about whether he believed the deportations to be unjust.
“We see this as something that’s necessary in the US to make sure that the rule of law is respected and that the countries are cooperating with us in making sure they take back their repatriation cases,” he said.