Friday, July 4, 2014

Welcome to the Asylum

There’s been much controversy of late regarding the resettling in Cambodia of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia, but were intercepted before they managed to get there and are now residing on Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state, and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
The brouhaha over the plan has been vocal and vociferous. Many international institutions deride Australia for not meeting its commitments towards refugees; in some ways it has to be recognized as a cop out. On the other hand I can sympathize with the country since not being really tough in discouraging the migration might result in a torrent of people seeking an escape route to Aussie from their hardscrabble lives. After all, there are at least a billion desperate people in the world that would go to great lengths to do that.
(As this is being written about 250,000 Cambodians illegally working in Thailand have been driven out of that country. People desperate to improve their lives are found in a lot of places. But note, Lao and Burmese working illegally in Thailand are not facing the same pressure to leave, so this is just an excuse to dump on Cambodians. But Thailand needs those workers so this is also a blow to a lot of Thai businesses.)
On the local front, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a network of several local NGOs, has called for a halt to the plan saying it wouldn’t be fair to asylum seekers since local security forces are “known to commit abuses such as killings, torture and arbitrary detention”.
That sounds more like the USA than Cambodia. Yes, there have been several people killed in the recent past who were involved either in political or land-grab demonstrating or workers’ strikes and several more environmental or labor activists have been killed in the past decade, but innocent people are killed every week in America by hyped up, militarized, trigger-happy cops, with minorities especially targeted.
Torture? Remember America’s rendition program where suspected terrorists were and maybe still are abducted everywhere the CIA operates and sent to third countries, like Syria for instance, to be tortured? Or how about the man associated with the 9/11 bombers who was waterboarded 180 times after the CIA had gotten all the information they were going to get from him? After 179 times were they actually looking for information on the 180th try or were they just having fun? BTW, waterboarding was one of the favored techniques of the Spanish Inquisition and has been used ever since by people and governments who desire to inflict fear and pain.
But in Cambodia? That’s news to me. Admittedly the cops here can be brutal when told to prevent demonstrating, but that’s true probably everywhere but Scandinavia and a few other pockets of exceptional humanity in a violent crazy world. About 10 years ago in Genoa, Italy at the time of an international finance meeting, the police walked into a warehouse late at night where demonstrators were asleep or peacefully talking and busted heads with 100 people injured and needing medical treatment. On that basis Italy would not be fit as a place for asylum seekers, but in fact gets tens of thousands of migrants seeking refuge yearly. You certainly would never accuse America’s cops of being gentle and law-abiding. Police are supposed to apprehend suspected law breakers and turn them over to the courts for justice, but are all too happy to administer nightstick justice on the spot. Not everybody who’s apprehended is guilty so it’s totally wrong for the police to abuse people before they’ve had their day in court.
Arbitrary detention? Nothing beats Guantanamo for keeping people for long periods without charges. About fifty of the current inmates were cleared for release years ago, innocent of all suspicions, but still languish behind bars. Having spent some time in the slammer myself, I strongly believe that it’s better to let a guilty person free than imprison an innocent one. While the government here has put people in prison on politically motivated charges, international pressure assures that they don’t remain very long even if their original sentences were for extended periods. In contrast Thailand just sentenced an anti-coup activist to 15 years in prison.
By the above I don’t mean to gloss over the very serious problems and unfortunate backsliding occurring of late in Cambo. It feels sad and depressing to see my adopted home treat so many of its people so harshly, but they still keep fighting back and while the recent killings have certainly dampened many people’s enthusiasm for protesting, the desire and spirit for change and improvement has not diminished. There are demonstrations and strikes happening nearly every day in spite of prohibitions against the activity. But keep it in perspective. When the military overthrew President Morsi in Egypt, more than 1000 protesters were killed and 15,000 imprisoned. Closer to home when the Thai military broke up the red-shirt protest in Bangkok in 2010, 90 people were killed and 1000 injured.
Now I can understand people seeking asylum in Australia - most of those coming lately (as of 2012) are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka - not wanting to be shunted over to Cambodia instead. Getting resettled in Oz would be like striking it rich, whereas Cambo?: Welcome to the Asylum.
I mean, if a guy is truly fleeing persecution, rather than an economic migrant seeking a better life in Oz, then I reckon Cambodia is as good a place as any to seek refuge. When you come down to it, a lot of us expats here are refugees from the real world of freeways and alienation and overregulation and McDonald’s 15% meat hamburgers. Many of us think it’s paradise or pretty close so I don’t see why it should be a problem for legitimate asylum seekers.
 I expect many of those true asylum seekers, if they understood they could only show up at the airport in Cambodia with a valid passport and stay as long as they liked, would choose that option over paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers and taking grave chances with their lives on rickety overloaded boats. Besides, with Cambodia already welcoming an international community of expats, it seems they’d fit right in, as easy as adjusting to Australia anyway. And with most of the country’s economy being informal they ought to be able to find a way earn money and supplement their Aussie subsidy.
Many might not have passports or not be able to leave their country the legitimate route through border control, so they would still be left with the smuggler option. Still if they came here by way of being captured offshore by Australia and that country is willing to give Cambo a reported (but not confirmed) $40 million to take a mere 100 refugees, they’d certainly be well taken care of. They wouldn’t have the same cushy life as in Oz, but it’d be quite comfortable nonetheless… it might not be western standards, but still very doable.  
Cambo is certainly more acceptable and logical a place to resettle refugees than Nauru or Papua New Guinea, the two nations now holding asylum seekers. Nauru as an independent state has the world’s smallest population outside the Vatican; less than 10,000 people. It once had a thriving phosphate mining industry but that has been totally depleted and 80% of the country’s environment has been degraded. It has received tens of millions of dollars from Australia since refugees were first shunted there in 2001 and there are currently about 1100 people at the country’s detention center. It’s very far from everything and too small to absorb asylum seekers. They also had a big riot which caused a lot of damage last year.
PNG is certainly big enough but it’s got one of the lowest rates of urbanization in the world and most people live in tribal societies – Wikipedia calls them customary living arrangements, evidently the new euphemism for tribal. It’s so underdeveloped the only way to get between its two largest cities is by air. It’s not a place that could easily absorb international migrants. So once again, Welcome to the Asylum.
Meanwhile, in Kampot, my own little corner of the asylum, there’s lots happening, though a big topic of conversation lately is the government push for every one of us to obtain a work permit, whether we work or not, and the backdating of fees – at $150 per year (permit $100, health certificate $30, processing fee $20) for up to 7 years, which can get to be a big chunk of moolah. It seems they are starting in Kampot because being in a small city we are easy targets. Most of us have known right along that the country would eventually tighten up its regulations and paperwork. It had to happen.
Most people urge waiting till they come for you, but we’ve been warned that there will be arrears to pay if we don’t have the permit by July 1. Some people have gone down to the Ministry of Labor office to inquire (thus the info I’m imparting) and a few have paid up. One guy, who refused to cough up $1000, got a visit from the police two days later who offered the permit for $450, so there’s room for negotiation. We somehow need to make a fuss about the backdating since it’s kind of unfair to expect us to pay for 7 years when permits were never mentioned previously and probably not even available. It may be easy to ignore a few hundred Kompotians wailing, rending their garments and gnashing their teeth but when it comes to tens of thousands (or is it hundreds of thousands) of Penhers getting hit up, there could be an uproar and maybe a softening of the rules. More on this as the story develops.
In fact work permits is not the only place where the government is tightening up. Paying road taxes has also become more formal. Previously when I went to pay my tax I only had to show the previous’ years form and they gave me a new one. Now they want a copy of the registration card and passport. I took the new form in and Wow, Fiasco. It turns out the form I’ve been using to pay my taxes isn’t for my car, it doesn’t match the registration card… I’ve been paying somebody else’s taxes for six years! The guy behind the desk refers me to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, supposedly to fix the paperwork… now that would cost some money.
Even better - a lot worse actually - after delving into the paperwork to try to figure things out, I discovered that the registration card also isn’t for my car! It doesn’t match the year or ID number. Evidently, at least very likely, the plates and registration were pulled off a wreck and put on mine to avoid paying import tax. My car’s an illegal alien!!! If that’s the case it’d cost more to pay the import tax, not to mention the tons of money (read baksheesh) for all that new paperwork, than the car is worth.
Chances are good, in spite of my best intentions to be an exemplary non-citizen and pay my taxes, that I’ll be running illegally from now on… at least I’ll save $25 per year on taxes… but maybe need to pay a few bribes on the road for not being up to date. The nightmare scenario is that they someday want to check the registration against the car ID…
In other news an expat community project of building a playground on the riverfront, for which $7000 dollars was raised, has been wildly successful. Around dusk every afternoon the structure is packed with screaming joyful kids..
Hugh of Bodhi Villa is working on the old Alaska disco building that sits over the river across from the new (old) market. It’ll be a restaurant and a live music venue. Judging by the success of Bodhi’s live music cum disco Friday nights, which have been going for 10 years and are always jammed, it’s bound to be a hit. In the process of totally redoing the old blocky, ugly, nondescript building, the original structure, built in the 1930s around the same time as the market, has been exposed: it’s a beaut, matching the design of the market. The market is now completely occupied, at least all the outside shops, and the large open areas at both ends are now hosting successful restaurants.
A new boat dock is almost finished which will include an immigration office so travelers will be able to go direct to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island from Kampot. The island is much closer to Kampot or Kep than Ha Tien in Vietnam.
Eric is leaving Bokor Mtn. Lodge after 9 years managing it. He held a great end-of-an-era party with Kampot Playboys providing music… they’re getting really good. He provided food and six kegs of beer. It was a great time; everybody (almost) showed up. Recent specialty-food additions to the restaurant scene include Auberge, owned by a French-Swiss, which has some tasty gourmet eats. To test the market he provided 12 of us with a 7-course gourmet meal for a paltry five dollars… the first time anyway. Davino Italian restaurant gets good reviews and soon NOLA will open with authentic New Orleans Cajun.
Gettin’ up in the world… which also means a new Mad Monkey guest house – they have two others in Cambodia. It seems out of place to me and represents a trend we residents are not especially fond of. Friend of mine went there to check on the pool: too small and surrounded by thirty backpackers was his assessment. A lot of old-time Cambo expats have a very low opinion of backpackers. I don’t see it; I reckon they were all backpackers once. If you’re young (or old) and out traveling you of course want to talk to people about where they’ve been and where they’re going and you’re cheap because you want to stay a long time on a little money. Besides suitcases are weird in a place like Cambo with sidewalks all ragged and trashy. They limit your mobility.
Just the idea of having so many more people passing through makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. We don’t have any grand tourist attractions or girlie bars and the town is still really small – about 40,000 people - so maybe the growth that’s inevitable will stay under control.
One heartening note is that most of the new construction in Old Town is either restoring the old structures or building new in the old style. Only a few dolts have bucked the trend.

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