Amid crackdowns on undocumented migrants in Malaysia and Thailand, demand for passports among Cambodian migrants has seen large spikes in recent weeks, with many making the costly journey to Phnom Penh to get their paperwork in order.
However, several Cambodia-based travel agencies told The Post that they could, defying official policies, make passports for Cambodian citizens abroad – if the citizens had the wherewithal to pay around $600, or six times the official amount.
Though the agents stopped short of using the word “bribe” to describe their payments to Passport Department officials, by taking advantage of the “unofficial process”, the agencies fill in for a service that advocates say should be readily available at Cambodian embassies overseas – with one official insisting that it technically is, for workers and students.
But apparent confusion over that policy, along with what some have characterised as a lack of political will, leaves often low-paid migrant workers in the unenviable position of having to choose between paying to return home, or paying exorbitant fees from abroad to obtain the essential documents.
One travel agency employee, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said that while her agency took $115 to $235 to facilitate normal and express passports, respectively, for customers inside Cambodia. Her agency asks $590 from customers abroad, with $570 going to the Passport Department directly.
Officially, passports cannot be made from abroad, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The documents cost $100 for a normal passport and $200 for a one-day expedited passport at the department’s offices in Phnom Penh.
However, the travel agency employee said migrants could send a photo of themselves, their old passport, a copy of an ID card, their family book and a copy of the passport of another Cambodian guarantor who confirms the person is abroad.
“The Messenger brings all of those documents to the Passport Department, then leaves the documents with the police there. The police process everything,” she said.
And if, for example, the person did not have the family book, “we can still do it”, she said.
As those applying from abroad cannot give their thumbprints, the department “may reload it from the previous thumbprint of the passport owner when they made the old passport”, the employee added.
Thus, the new passport would have the same information as the old one, except for the updated photo.
She gave the example of a student in Canada who was unable to return. “His old passport nearly expired. He had an exam and couldn’t come home – so we did it for him,” she said.
The deputy director of the Passport Department, Sok Sophorn, denied the claims. “I don’t know about this service … I don’t know how they do it,” he said.
Sophorn maintained that there was one possibility of getting a new passport when abroad, namely going to the embassy, which would send a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in turn would submit a request to the Interior Ministry to issue a new passport.
This was only applicable, he said, for “migrant workers or students if they are busy and cannot go back”, and only the older five-year version of the passport could be issued. “For the new [10-year] one, we need the person to come back, as we need their finger prints.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he had never heard of this procedure. “For the moment, Cambodians have to go back [to Cambodia to get a passport],” he said.
Despite the denials from the Passport Department and Foreign Ministry, Cambodian migrants in Malaysia told The Post earlier this month that they had to pay agencies fees of more than $800 to obtain new passports abroad, with multiple Cambodian agencies giving similar accounts.
Oeung Hong, the general manager of the RTR agency in Phnom Penh, also said migrants could get passports made from abroad through his company. “For $600, we can do it,” he said.
Of this, about $590 went to the passport department. “This is an unofficial process,” he said.
He said the Interior Ministry checked “the background of the passport owner” to confirm that the person was unable to travel back.
Another agency also confirmed that they offered the service – again for $600. An employee said it would take three weeks to process the passports, and that they would bring all documents – copy of ID card, photo and old passport – to the Interior Ministry.
It remains unclear whether passports can be bought without an old passport.Preap Kol, Transparency International executive director, said the Interior Ministry “should promptly conduct an investigation to find out if there is any misconduct or corruption as being alleged”.
“If any misconduct or corruption is found, the punishment shall be made according to the laws,” he said.
Moeun Tola, of labour rights group Central, said that such high passport fees forced migrants into illegality. “If true, that is the main root cause that puts migrants into the undocumented status. If you can’t afford $600, you have to stay illegally,” he said.
In the first two weeks of July, 79 Cambodian undocumented migrants were arrested in Malaysia in a crackdown by the Malaysian government, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
Officials at the Cambodian Embassy there said yesterday that they did not have updated figures, but noted that about 30 Cambodians were seeking shelter at the embassy. The officials directed all other questions to the Foreign Ministry before hanging up.
Tola said the embassy indicated it didn’t have the resources to repatriate arrested undocumented workers because the Cambodian government allocated no resources.
“It’s not even about mass repatriation – also for individual cases they always approach the [International Organisation for Migration]. But IOM doesn’t fund unless they’re victims of human trafficking.”
The IOM could not be reached for comment yesterday. If passport and recruitment fees weren’t reduced, he said, migrants would continue to be pushed into undocumented status.
“That’s a big failure of the Cambodian government.”
Additional reporting by Touch Sokha