Shunned by authorities on both sides of the border, Bach Bai has been relying on the generosity of strangers since his ethnic Vietnamese fishing community was evicted from Cambodia’s capital three weeks ago and cast off downstream on their floating homes.
But few are willing to help hundreds of stateless families, who had earned a living breeding fish and hosting tourists on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River, and are now moored to a riverbank a few kilometers from Vietnam, desperate to be allowed inside.
“I was born on the Tonle Sap but I’m told Cambodia is no longer my home,” Bai said, squatting on the bow of his tiny vessel in Leuk Daek, about 100 km south of Phnom Penh, as his three young children ate noodles and asked reporters for money.
Some 15 million people worldwide, like Bai, are not recognized as citizens by any country and are increasingly vulnerable with the COVID-19 pandemic, as inequality grows between those with stable work and homes and those without.
The mass eviction – one of the largest in years – has drawn condemnation, as daily COVID-19 infections hit new highs in June in both countries.
“Undertaking a rapid eviction at the height of Cambodia’s COVID-19 outbreak puts this community’s health and human rights at risk,” said Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group LICADHO.
But locals were not keen to support the displaced ethnic Vietnamese, who make up Cambodia’s largest minority, comprising some 180,000 people – or 1% of the population – according to government data, though many believe the figure is much higher.
“We don’t have a problem with them, so long as they stay in their boats and away from us,” said one shopkeeper in Leuk Daek, who gave her name only as Han.
Chin Vantan, another stateless evictee, said he did not feel safe leaving his boat.
Cambodia gave 1,500 boats – mostly housing stateless ethnic Vietnamese families – one week to leave on June 2, citing concerns about floating slums being an eyesore and health hazard ahead of Phnom Penh’s hosting of the 2023 Southeast Asian Games.
“We’ve been telling them for years,” said Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan, adding that the government could not wait until the end of the pandemic to enforce the law.
“They ignore the warnings and then complain that they have no place to go,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Waves of Vietnamese migration into Cambodia date back to the 19th century, and people have continued to cross the region’s porous borders in search of opportunities, despite tighter regulations which limit access to education and health care.
In recent years, thousands of Phnom Penh’s boatpeople have been repatriated to Vietnam or moved to settlements, which human rights groups say often lack drinking water and toilets, as Cambodian authorities seek to cut pollution and overfishing.
Vietnam’s ambassador in Phnom Penh Vu Quang Minh criticized the evictions on his Facebook page as “a sudden decision,” citing the COVID-19 risk, before later urging Vietnamese to work harder to integrate in Cambodia and not “expect charity.”
Most of those just evicted had moved on to land or taken their boats outside Phnom Penh until their fish could be sold, but helping families on the border was “beyond the capacity of the government,” said its spokesman Siphan.
A few kilometers past the new arrivals’ moored boats, a string of large ships stretched across the river, blocking entry to Vietnam.
Approaching the blockade – which appeared shortly after the evictions, European Space Agency satellite images show – a Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter was turned back by customs police and told: “You should not be checking on this issue.”
The majority of the displaced boatpeople who spoke with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Leuk Daek said they were born in Cambodia, though none had proof. Many said they could not speak Khmer, Cambodia’s official language.
One woman, who said she had been in Cambodia for seven years, flashed a permanent resident card – issued by Cambodia since 2015 to minorities as a bridge to citizenship – but said she wanted “to go home.”
Anti-Vietnamese sentiment is widespread in Cambodia, decades after the two states allied with opposing sides in the Cold War, leaving the migrants with little support, academics said.
“It’s in Cambodia’s interest to start discussion on immigration policy,” said Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think-tank in Phnom Penh. “There are people who have been living here for decades and rightfully deserve legal protection.”
Local councillor Suy Khon was not giving any aid to the new arrivals.
“Vietnam doesn’t accept them and we don’t have clear instructions from (Phnom Penh), so we allow them to stay in the river temporarily,” she said.
While some of the evictees managed to retain their fish – reared in cages beneath their homes – about 30 families lost their houseboats, and were living on fibreglass canoes.
“All we know is that we must stay here until COVID-19 is over,” said Bai, as four families a few boats over sewed together fishing nets that they had bought with their pooled money, eager to get back to work.
“Can you tell me, when is that?”
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg, Editing by Katy Migiro. Thomson Reuters Foundation)