Recent deportees from the US socialise in Battambang province.
Recent deportees from the US socialise in Battambang province. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Ministry of Foreign Affairs targeted by US visa ban, in retaliation for government's deportee stance

The United States yesterday banned business and tourist visas for Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials and their families in response to the Kingdom’s refusal to accept “inhumane” deportations of Cambodian citizens convicted of felonies in the US.

The visa restrictions come as tensions with the US have reached a fever pitch following the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha and accusations the US was involved in a plot to topple the government.

The sanctions coincided with the US Embassy issuing a travel alert urging American citizens to “exercise caution”, saying Kem Sokha’s arrest, the expulsion of American NGO the National Democratic Institute and “anti-American rhetoric by officials” could “raise the overall tensions in the country”.

However, US State Department officials yesterday said the visa ban was “solely related to the Cambodia’s refusal to allow repatriation of their criminal deportees”.

According to State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman Kevin Brosnahan,the US yesterday discontinued B1 and B2 visas, which are for temporary visits for business or pleasure, for “Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees, with the rank of Director General and above, and their families, with limited exceptions”.

The B visa also applies to Cambodians seeking medical treatment in the US, and the ban affects the minister, secretaries and undersecretaries of state, and cabinet advisers.

Last October, the Kingdom temporarily stopped issuing travel documents to receive Cambodian nationals whom the US wanted to deport.

Since 2002, 566 Cambodians residing in the US have been deported due to felony convictions under a memorandum of understanding that critics say tears families apart. Many deportees were born in Thai refugee camps after their parents fled the Khmer Rouge; some cannot speak Khmer and have no family left in Cambodia.

Brosnahan said that under US law, “when a country denies or unreasonably delays accepting one of its nationals”, the State Department is empowered to “discontinue issuance of any or all visas”. “Cambodia has repeatedly failed to issue travel documents for individuals under final order of removal. We believe that this step is therefore required at this time with the hope Cambodia will cooperate on removals,” he said.

He added that the visa restrictions will be lifted once the State Department is notified that Cambodia will accept the return of its nationals.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “regrets” the move, and “anticipates” the US will “reconsider” to “promote friendly relations”.

The suspension, they said, was to address humanitarian concerns and did not mean the MoU would be terminated.

Bill Herod, founder of the Returnee Integration Support Centre (RISC), said he hoped the government wouldn’t budge until a more humane solution had been reached.

“If an individual was born in a Thai camp, committed a minor, non-violent crime as a teenager, and has been crime-free for years and is now employed and raising a family, the two governments could agree that the compassionate and humanitarian aspects of such a case argue against deportation,” he said.

But Future Forum founder Ou Virak was not so optimistic, saying the restrictions would frustrate officials. “I think Cambodia will cave,” he said. “This is really sad, though,” he added, saying the US had imposed sanctions for “the wrong reasons”, undermining their credibility on human rights and democracy.