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Stateless Cambodians Become Vietnamese Citizens

The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that the Vietnamese government has taken groundbreaking steps to end statelessness for thousands of former Cambodian refugees. The UNHCR said more than 2,000 refugees will receive Vietnamese citizenship by the end of the year.

The U.N. refugee agency says 2,357 victims of Cambodia's Pol Pot dictatorship have been living in limbo in Vietnam for more than three decades.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says this situation of uncertainty now is over for 287 former refugees. Last Friday, he says, they received their citizenship certificates at a ceremony at the Department of Justice in Ho Chi Minh City.

Edwards says it was the culmination of five years of work between the UNHCR and the Vietnamese government. He says all of the Cambodians speak Vietnamese and that they are fully integrated in the society.

"They now acquire all rights of citizenship. In Vietnam, this means an all-important family registration book that governs citizens' interactions with the government, as well as a government I.D. card. With these two documents, the new citizens can buy houses, attend universities, get health and pension insurance, and do other simple things they were not able to do before such as have ownership of a motorbike," he said.

Edwards notes that by the end of the year, the remaining 2,070 former Cambodian refugees also will have their Vietnamese citizenship.

He praises other important steps Vietnam has taken in ending and preventing statelessness. "Last year, it enacted a law to plug gaps that caused thousands of Vietnamese women who married and then divorced foreign men to become stateless. This situation has now been largely rectified, and most of the women and their children are getting citizenship," he said.

Combating statelessness is one of the UNHCR's top priorities. The agency says the 12 million people who are stateless worldwide have no rights. They live in a virtual twilight zone, stripped of the ability to move freely or to participate in the normal social benefits citizens of a country take for granted.