PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - The United States has negotiated a deal to resume the deportation of Cambodians, many of whom arrived as refugees, under a controversial resettlement program.
A deal between the two governments under which hundreds of Cambodians had been sent back from the United States since 2002 fell apart last year when Phnom Penh reportedly stopped accepting returnees.
U.S. officials retaliated by placing visa sanctions on Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials in September. On Friday, Cambodian officials succumbed to an offer to lift those bans.
After a meeting between Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Carl C. Risch, visiting assistant U.S. secretary of state for consular affairs, Phat Phanith, director of the International Relations Department, said the pair had agreed to resume the deal.
"Samdech [Sar Kheng] also informed the delegates that Cambodia generally fulfills its obligation to take its citizens, but everything had to be thoroughly discussed," he said.
"Samdech also asked that the U.S. government increase financial support to Cambodian citizens returning to Cambodia so that they could have a better start in life and successfully integrate into Cambodian society."
In the past, deportees have been left in a country most have never lived in with no government support, leaving a handful of NGOs to scramble to provide them basic services.
The latest agreement came as the deportation program faces renewed scrutiny amid accusations from deportees that Cambodian officials have been using the process to extort bribes in U.S. detention centers.
These accusations, first reported in The Phnom Penh Post, were revealed in a U.S. federal court ruling late last month that barred the Trump administration from repatriating 92 Cambodians until they had a chance to legally challenge their deportation orders.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak denied the bribery allegations, saying Cambodian officials visited the U.S. detention facilities with U.S. police present.
“The authorities sat down and interviewed [them] in front of the U.S. police. They went together…and this is defamation. And the one who wrote and said this, if they have their name, please tell us clearly and do not defame others like this,” he said.?
At a news conference in Phnom Penh on Friday before the deal was reached, Risch said he was unaware of the bribery allegations but hoped Cambodian officials would cooperate in return for lifting the visa sanctions.
"That's my goal," he said. "I would like to see the sanctions eventually be lifted and have Cambodia be cooperative in taking back their repatriation cases."
"What we're making sure can be done is that there will be a repeatable, dependable uniform process going forward," he said.
Most Cambodian deportees are sent back after serving jail sentences for felony convictions.
Critics say this is a form of double punishment meted out to refugees already traumatized after fleeing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent turmoil in Cambodia.
As permanent residents many don’t understand that they should apply for citizenship and without it could legally be deported if convicted of a felony.
Advocates say they can be detained, completely unannounced, years after serving their sentences and swiftly deported to a country they fled as small children where they must come to terms with permanent separation from their families.
Bill Herod, founder of the Returnee Integration Support Center, said that while the court had blocked the deportation of 92 Cambodians who had already left jail, others currently serving time were still being repatriated at the conclusion of their sentences.
“We had one yesterday and one last week and one two weeks ago. We got nine on the 20th of December. But these are all people who came directly from prison” he said on Saturday.
Herod did not know how this latest diplomatic twist would impact challenges to the legality of deportation program in the United States, but remained resigned to the reality that more would be sent back.
“It’s not fair and it’s not nice and it’s not ethical and its not moral, but it’s legal.”
When asked Friday whether deporting such individuals in this way was humane, Risch simply reaffirmed his intention to pressure Cambodia into resuming the agreement.
The Asian Law Caucus, which has been providing legal support to the deportees, stressed that the people harmed by the program were refugee families who faced permanent separation as a result.
"The latest diplomatic talks don't change the fact that these detentions and deportations of longtime U.S. residents are unjustified and immoral," the caucus said in an emailed statement.