Cambodia’s national parliamentary election in July 2013 saw much debate about the place of the country’s ethnic Vietnamese minority. Whilst the contemporary politicized discourse focuses primarily on who should have a right to vote, few address the underlying question of the social and legal status of this minority group in Cambodia. The ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia is one of, if not the largest, minority group in the country. Despite this, the ethnic Vietnamese population in Cambodia remains understudied. Whilst many ethnic Vietnamese have Cambodian identification documents and have successfully integrated into society, others continue to live at the margins of society and face difficulties substantiating their legal status in Cambodia.
Any discussion about this group needs to start with a proper differentiation, as "The Vietnamese" in Cambodia are not comprised of one single group, but comprise multifaceted and diverse sub-groups of individuals. Such sub-groups include Cambodian citizens of Vietnamese origin; ethnic Vietnamese in mixed marriages with Khmer spouses; long-term residents of Cambodia (some of whom have resided in Cambodia during or before French colonial times); and more recent immigrants seeking economic opportunities.
One of the most vulnerable groups is Cambodia’s long-term ethnic Vietnamese minority. In an attempt to shed light into the circumstances of this specific group, a recent report – “A Boat Without Anchors” – assessed the legal status of a focal group from Kampong Chhnang province around the Tonle Sap Lake. The report explores the status of the focal group under the applicable Cambodian and Vietnamese nationality laws, examines available documentation among the group and considers how the national authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam view and treat the group under the operation of their respective laws.
Some communities belonging to this focal group have resided for many generations in Cambodia, and many individuals have acquired Cambodian citizenship under previous or current nationality laws. However, the minority group has frequently suffered under the often-times contentious bilateral relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam, and discrimination and exclusion in Cambodia has complicated their integration into society. At its extreme, the group suffered under the genocidal campaign of the Khmer Rouge regime, aimed at exterminating the group from Cambodia. For this, accused persons at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal have been charged with the crime of genocide against the Vietnamese. For survivors who resided in Cambodia for generations, survival resulted from their deportation to Vietnam in 1975. Upon their return during the 1980s, most were treated as “immigrants” or “foreign residents”. As a consequence, many have neither proof of Cambodian nor Vietnamese nationality. These persons may in fact be stateless.
Without citizenship and other documentation, the specific ethnic Vietnamese in this research do not have access to many basic economic, political, and social rights. They face an array of legal, political, economic and social disadvantages, including difficulty accessing employment, education, health care, legal protection, limited freedom of movement, and an inability to open a bank account or own land. Few development activities have taken place in these communities. Expanding much needed services, in particular in the education and health sectors, to cover these and other communities would contribute to integrating them into Cambodian society and upholding their basic rights.
Importantly, the report found that these Vietnamese communities, by and large, have no effective access to birth registration. According to Cambodian law, birth registration is not linked to nationality and is available to all children born on Cambodian territory. The absence of birth registration documentation for children in the focal group communities creates barriers for obtaining other documents relevant to exercising future rights and entitlements such as admission to school and access to Cambodian nationality, in accordance with the Cambodian nationality law. In order to ensure that statelessness does not perpetuate through generations within the Vietnamese minority populations in Cambodia, there is a need to expand universal birth registration to the children of these communities. The commendable efforts undertaken in past years by the responsible entities under the Cambodian Ministry of Interior, often with support from UNICEF, should be continued and expanded, including awareness-raising among affected population and local authorities.
A careful balance needs to be struck, which respects the right of the Cambodia state to regulate immigration, and the rights of long-term residents in accordance with Cambodia’s national law and international human rights standards. To achieve this balance, authorities need to distinguish between individuals who have resided for many generations in Cambodia and more recent immigrants. Cambodian laws should apply equally to everybody – both mainstream Cambodians and members of the ethnic Vietnamese minority in Cambodia. As rights and obligations go hand in hand, this can provide a more sustainable basis for integration.
Christoph Sperfeldt and Lyma Nguyen, authors of JRS Cambodia’s publication “A boat without anchors”