Ethnic Vietnamese who have lived in Cambodia for generations are deprived of citizenship, trapped in poverty, lack access to education, live under deplorable conditions, and are shut out from economic, social, and political life, a local minority-rights advocacy group says in a new report, seeking urgent government intervention.
About five percent or 750,000 of Cambodia's 15 million people are ethnic Vietnamese, the largest ethnic minority in Cambodia, but most of them are stateless and, according to the report, are "consequently deprived of their most fundamental human rights."
"The lack of identification papers is the root cause of all other difficulties faced by stateless Vietnamese in Cambodia and due to this lack of identity they face widespread discrimination and exploitation," the Minority Rights Organization (MIRO) said in the report “Limbo on Earth: The Situation of Stateless Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia."
"This has dire consequences on their access to healthcare, education, justice in court, social security, freedom of movement, transfer of assets, and housing," it said, citing a case study in Cambodia's central Kampong Chhnang province covering about 5,000 ethnic Vietnamese who were born in Cambodia.
It expressed the hope that the ethnic Vietnamese claim to citizenship and nationality "will not be drowned out by the expressions of racism in Cambodia," lamenting that anti-Vietnamese sentiments are on the rise in the country.
It referred to several recent incidents of violent assaults on ethnic Vietnamese and their properties which it said "give cause for grave concern."
Viewed as 'illegal immigrants' by politicians and people
The report said ethnic Vietnamese minorities are at present regarded as “legal immigrants” or “foreign residents” by the Cambodian authorities and as “illegal immigrants” by politicians and the people of Cambodia.
It said that as the status of all those born after 1996 complies with the procedure provided in the 1996 Law on Nationality, at least the young ethnic Vietnamese should be granted citizenship.
"It is of paramount importance to act upon these issues, as the problems will only exacerbate and intensify if not solved in the near future," the report said.
MIRO official Ang Chanrith said his organization feels it is particularly important for the ethnic Vietnamese children to be registered, as this is the only way they can enjoy other fundamental human rights, such as education.
"We published the report so that ethnic Vietnamese children can be allowed to have citizenship and can pursue their education and there is no discrimination and racial hatred and violence," he said.
The report also said discrimination against the ethnic Vietnamese is used as a "tool" in political campaigns of Cambodian politicians.
"During every election event in Cambodia, the Vietnamese have traditionally been the target for political discrimination, attacked by politicians and used as scapegoats in order for the politicians to gain support and votes for their political parties."
Opposition party leaders and their supporters, the report said, have "severely used political rhetoric and derogatory slurs against the Vietnamese in Cambodia, causing the Cambodian public to feel more and more resentment against the ethnic Vietnamese."
The survey in Kampong Chhang showed that almost 90 per cent of the ethnic Vietnamese did not possess birth certificates and identity cards. They had only their immigration cards and resident papers to prove that their residence in Cambodia is legal.
All of them were born in Cambodia and their families have lived in the country for many generations.
Nearly all those interviewed live in floating houses on the Tonle Sap River in Kampong Chhnang. The houses have been erected on an assembly of bamboo poles with barrels attached underneath so that they float on the water.
Usually, the houses have two or three rooms, which have no windows to protect their inhabitants from the rain, nor electricity or bathrooms; the toilets are latrines that open directly into the water.
MIRO said it asked some ethnic majority Khmer people living along the river how they would feel about living on floating houses and that "most of them began laughing and replied that they would be afraid to live there and that this kind of lifestyle was only for the 'Vietnamese'."
It said that the ethnic Vietnamese floating village community was reportedly vulnerable to intimidation and money extortion from authorities such as immigration police, economic police, water traffic police, military police, soldiers, fishing community members, and security guards.
Ang Chanrith said the ethnic Vietnamese have asked the authorities that they be allowed to live inland to prevent pollution in the Tonle Sap River but there has been no decision made yet.
Provincial officials have told RFA's Khmer Service that they are working to resolve the floating village problem.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.