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Opinion

Rising concern in Cambodia over immigrant workers

Inflows from China and elsewhere need better control and supervision

Chinese and Cambodian workers at a construction site in Sihanoukville: official data shows 78,000 resident Chinese nationals in the city but with only 20,000 having work permits.   © Getty Images

From Iem Bunhy

While Chinese investment is part of stimulating growth and development in Cambodia, growing numbers of Chinese nationals have been investigated for allegedly committing a number of offenses in the country, including assault, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and organizing prostitution.

On May 7, the Ministry of the Interior reported that in the first three months of this year, at least 241 Chinese nationals have been detained in Cambodia.

Generally, I agree that foreign aid and investment are vital for the economic development of Cambodia, as a developing country. But there is nothing more valuable than state sovereignty and national security. Crime shakes investors' confidence in the country. Who wants to invest in a chaotic society?

Strong regulations and proper enforcement safeguard the peace. We therefore need to review the law and existing policies.

Migration law should be a priority. When the Cambodia Migration Law was enacted in 1994, few foreigners, including from China were living and working in Cambodia.

But last year some 2.8 million people were granted visas to visit the country, mostly people are arriving as tourists. But it is clear from the large numbers of Chinese workers in Cambodia that many either overstay their tourist visas or enter the country without any documentation.

Official data shows 160,000 foreigners resident with work permits in 2018 but it is widely assumed that this understates the true numbers of foreign workers. Separate official data showed 210,000 resident Chinese nationals last year, including 78,000 in Sihanoukville, the hub of Chinese investment, but with only 20,000 Chinese people in the city having work permits.

The numbers imply there is huge amount of illegal immigration which indicates that the local authorities have not actively prevented inflows or even accurately recorded what is happening. We must start by producing reliable and consistent records and then making sure that the rules are enforced.

The immigration police and inspection teams need to do more work along the border to reduce illegal border crossings.

More needs to be done in dealing with foreigners involved in crime. Foreign people who are convicted of serious offenses such as robbery or murder should, after serving their sentences, be sent back to their home country. This requires the cooperation of foreign governments to receive their nationals back.

This is especially true for China our biggest economic partner and source of the largest numbers of immigrants to Cambodia. Engaging in cooperation with China on this issue is consistent with maintaining warm Sino-Cambodia relations and protecting our national interests.

Iem Bunhy is a Young Fellow at Future Forum, an independent Cambodia-based public policy think tank. Currently, he is conducting a research project on the security implication of Chinese investment in Cambodia's coastal provinces.

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