US to impose visa restrictions on Cambodia over Phnom Penh's refusal to accept criminal deportees

PHNOM PENH (The Phnom Penh Post/Asia News Network) - The United States is set to impose visa sanctions on Cambodia, reportedly in response to Cambodia's freeze on acceptance of deportees with criminal convictions in the US.

The sanctions were brought against four countries, with sources identifying Cambodia as one of the nations that would be hit by the visa ban, the Washington Times reported on Tuesday (Aug 22).

A US official, who asked to remain anonymous, said on Thursday that the details of the visa suspension would not be available until after the US authorities have spoken with their Cambodian counterparts.

The official suggested, however, that it was unlikely all US visas would be halted for all Cambodians.

The news comes in the wake of the revelation earlier this month - first reported by the Cambodia Daily and later confirmed by non-governmental organisations that work with deportees - that the Cambodian government had, since October last year, temporarily halted issuing travel documents to convicted felons the US wanted to deport.

Several officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday could not be reached, but government spokesman Phay Siphan - a dual US-Cambodian citizen - said the move from the US was "shameful".

"I think that it's a wrong accusation or punishment... It's very, very unfair," he said. "My government raised the issue about human rights... because some Cambodian citizens, they never know Cambodia and they never speak Khmer. They served their time in jail already," he added.

When asked if the government would cave to the US visa sanctions - which could impact some of the government elite and their children studying abroad - Mr Siphan said it would be a "difficult decision... but how could we back down about human rights?".

Deportee Kalvin Hang, of the advocacy group 1Love Cambodia, said he was "confident" Cambodia would "stand strong in protecting its people... from these unjust policies".

"It's a perfect example of how the US is exercising its superpower in bullying small countries like Cambodia when it doesn't get what it wants," he said. "It's sad that they're claiming to be the righteous nation of freedom and human rights, but violating one of the biggest and most important values of human rights, and that's the right to be with family and pursue happiness."

Mr Bill Herod, founder of the Returnee Integration Support Centre, said the US sanctions were to be expected, but Cambodia was committed to finding a more humane solution.

"The threat of suspension of visas was known to Cambodian officials when they suspended deportations last October, nevertheless, they persisted," he said in an e-mail, adding that Cambodia had legitimate grounds for changing an agreement that routinely broke up families.

"My hope is that the two governments may now agree to prioritise cases on which both sides agree," he continued, noting that contentious deportation cases could be postponed for later review. "With an estimated 2,000 or more cases to consider, any postponements could take years to resolve, thus 'kicking the can down the road' to avoid the immediate crisis."

Mr Herod said 566 Cambodians had been deported in the past 15 years under the highly controversial memorandum of understanding that established the practice.

The latest developments, he added, would "almost certainly result in the release from prison - at least temporarily - of some Cambodian-Americans who are being held in detention in the US awaiting deportation".

A US State Department official said via e-mail on Thursday that the department was notified by the Department of Homeland Security that four countries had "refused to accept or unreasonably delayed the return of its nationals".

"When we receive such notification, the law requires a suspension of visa issuance," the official said, adding that travel restrictions could apply to any type of visa applicant, though details were not yet available.

Mr Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, questioned why Cambodia was one of the targeted countries and said the move could damage diplomatic relations.

"This is a clear example of the Trump 'my way or the highway' nationalist agenda coming to US foreign policy," he said.