Updated: April 01, 2014 05:15 PM GMT
Floating homes owned by ethnic Vietnamese fishermen living directly across from Phnom Penh (photo by Abby Seiff)
After a lifetime in Cambodia, a battered carnet de residence bearing poorly transliterated Vietnamese names is all that 41-year-old Nguyen Thi Kim has to show for it. Though she, her parents, and her children were born in Cambodia, none possess any other papers suggesting ties to the country.
“We don’t have an ID card because no one has offered it to us,” she says with a shrug. “Maybe it’s not our time yet?”
As Kim speaks, her baby daughter crawls around the shaded platform where she, her five children, and several in-laws have taken refuge from the blazing sun. In front of them, the dusty banks of the Mekong slope toward a few dozen floating homes that appear on the verge of collapse.
“When the water goes up, we have lots of health problems. I really would prefer to live on the land, but I can’t because I have no money,” says Kim.
The Vietnamese make up Cambodia’s largest ethnic minority but badly enforced immigration laws have kept families like Kim’s in limbo for lifetimes and deprived them of their most fundamental rights.
Without an ID card or birth certificate, no one in the family can go to school. This, over generations, has kept the community isolated and deeply impoverished. Without papers, they cannot own land – something that has allowed for evictions at whim with no compensation. And without adequate Khmer language skills (the entire family were interviewed in Vietnamese through an interpreter), they have no recourse to complain about the frequent bribes they are made to pay.
“We used to live over there,” says Kim’s sister-in-law, Nguyen Thi Thi, pointing to a peninsula halfway between Phnom Penh and Kandal province where the skeleton of a large unfinished hotel can be seen.
“They wanted to build, so they used force to push us out and make us live here. Now they often come by and ask for a bribe.”
Today, the community lives crammed together in a group of floating homes, located just meters from where the Phnom Penh ferry docks once every 10 minutes. The water is filthy, used as both bath and toilet, for drinking and for cleaning fish. Children suffer from diarrhea and skin problems; sometimes from worse.
“Yes, children drown,” says Kim, glancing at a nearby friend. “Her daughter died. She went out to sell things at the market and her four-year-old fell in and drowned.”
When the annual floods come – pushing leaky houseboats high above the Mekong’s banks, increasing the incidence of health issues and turning a fishing livelihood into a dangerous job – there is no assistance given to these families.
“The floods can be terrible. And when they happen, no one gives us emergency aid or rice, so it’s very hard,” says Kim.
Reliable figures regarding the Vietnamese population in Cambodia are hard to come by, precisely because so many have never been documented, but the CIA World Factbook puts the number at 5 percent of the nation’s 15.5 million population or about 775,000.
It is unclear what portion of those are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, or citizens. It is unclear how many were raised without a word of Khmer and how many speak no Vietnamese. But for decades, that lack of precision has opened them to rights abuses, discrimination, and scapegoatism.
“Enforcement in Cambodia [is lacking]. If [the government] complied with law on nationality and immigration law, they would analyze their background and figure out who has lived [here a] long time and who just arrived and make them apply for citizenship or residency,” says Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Minority Rights Organization.
Without proper documents, even families who have lived in Cambodia for generations have less rights than their ethnic Khmer neighbors. Without citizenship papers “they don’t have the right to education, right to vote, the right to participate in social activity,” says Chanrith. “They cannot find jobs, they cannot rent houses, they cannot send their children to schools – because public state institutions need ID before allowing them entry, as do private companies.”
For families like Kim’s and Thi’s– which are far too poor and uneducated to hold jobs in the formal sector – these issues are moot. But for those who are just a little bit more assimilated, the effect is pronounced.
Sixty-five-year old Ly Yong Thanh is well aware of such barriers. Though he says he has experienced little overt discrimination because of his ethnicity, he has seen the impact of institutional failure.
“Some of my children work as construction workers, some are farm workers,” he says in Khmer. “If they had ID cards, my children would have better jobs but you need a lot of money for that and we are poor.”
Though every one of his seven children have gone through the public school system, thanks to the relative laxity of officials in his village, just one has an office job. That daughter got hired only after her uncle paid for an identification card.
An ID card usually entails an informal payment of around US$100; the family has been asked to pay upwards of $400 for each.
“They say it will cost around $400 or $500 because we have to do it unofficially. I don’t know why we can’t do it in an official way. I just heard it is because we are Vietnamese, so they won’t do it for us,” says Yong Thanh’s wife, Nguyen Ty Hiew. “I was born near the Tonle Sap River. Even my parents and grandparents were born there as well… Regarding getting IDs, I don’t know [why it’s so difficult].”
Better educated and far more integrated into Cambodian society than many in their village, the family has had an easier time obtaining what is legally open to them. But without ID cards, many things are just a bit more difficult.
When Yong Thanh goes to Vietnam for medical treatment, he must bring a doctor’s letter to be allowed in the country.
“Coming back to Cambodia is fine, but going in, when I try to cross the border without an ID it’s very difficult,” he says.
Sending his children to school in this predominantly Vietnamese village worked fine, meanwhile, “but if we went to the city, we’d have a problem.”
“We don’t have a land title and even if we want to update our family book, they refuse to do that,” says Ty Hiew, referring to the residence card in which all members of the family are meant to be listed.
At a broader level, insufficient documentation opens families like hers up to allegations of illegal immigration. Most Vietnamese in Cambodia are abysmally poor, residing in floating communities that lack basic sanitation and living on the minimal proceeds of fishing. But that reality has failed to staunch the widespread perception that Vietnamese have come to steal jobs and slowly take over Cambodian land.
When Thi goes to the market to sell her husband’s catch, she contends with such comments frequently.
“It happens a lot, especially when I go to the market. They shout yuon," says Thi, referring to a Khmer word for Vietnamese that can be used quite derogatorily, "but I don’t want to fight them so I just ignore it.”
“Of course there is racism, but not all Khmers, just individually,” says the Vietnamese wife of an exporter who asked not to be named. “Sometimes we have a fight, they don’t respect us, they say we’re dependent on Khmers. There’s less problems though than in the past.”
The opposition party has, for two decades, made such claims the mainstay of its political rhetoric – tying Hanoi’s historic role in the Cambodian government and the growing influx of Vietnamese land concessionaires with the specter of illegal immigrants seizing Cambodia.
In a tense post-election climate, this has seen a smattering of attacks on businesses and even a murder many believe is linked to growing anti-Vietnamese sentiment.
Chanrith, of the Minority Rights Organization, calls such election-tied upticks typical and says the ruling party too shouldered a portion of blame for failing to ensure ethnic Vietnamese enjoyed the citizenship rights to which they were entitled.
“The government seems to not have any clear policy to allow this group to become citizens in Cambodia. We want the Ministry of Interior to enforce the law… in order to reduce discrimination and political rhetoric.”
In a report released early this month detailing the situation of ethnic Vietnamese in Kampong Chhnang province, the group urged the government to immediately issue birth certificates and IDs and called for a halt in racist rhetoric.
“Cambodian politicians should refrain from trying to enlarge their electorate by making use of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. The Cambodian people should be provided with unbiased information about the ethnic Vietnamese who have been living in Cambodia for many generations so that this minority group can become an integral part of a versatile Cambodian society.”
But even should such advice be taken, it will likely take generations to expunge long-standing, widespread animosity toward ethnic Vietnamese.
At its height, centuries-old enmity against Vietnamese has erupted into bloody pogroms. During both the Lon Nol and Pol Pot regimes, tens of thousands were systematically murdered, while several hundred thousand fled or were forcibly removed from Cambodia’s borders.
With the aid of an NGO, Ty Hiew and her family fled to Vietnam during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“At that time it was quite difficult because we didn’t have any jobs; the NGO just gave us a bag of rice and we had to make do,” she says. “But if we didn’t move to Vietnam, Pol Pot would have killed us. My aunt, who had a Khmer husband, was killed. They tied her arms behind her back and brought the whole family to be killed.”
As the couple talks, their seven-year-old granddaughter works through a series of exercises in Khmer and English, before meticulously coloring in a drawing she has made.
Because her father is Khmer, she is less likely to face the issues that her grandparents, aunts and uncles deal with daily.
But Yong Thanh, who is old enough to remember the massacres led by Lon Nol and Pol Pot, and the entrenched propaganda, attacksand murders of the 1990s, brushes aside his current struggles as irrelevant.
“It’s better than before.”
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