After authorities in Phnom Penh ordered in early June the removal of floating homes from waterways in the metropolitan area, resident Minh Yang Kai took his chances on the flow of the Mekong River.
Yang Kai, 69, was born in Vietnam’s Dong Thap province but has lived in Cambodia for about 25 years, most recently in a house on the river in the capital’s Chbar Ampov district. Rather than demolish his home by the June 12 deadline for the city’s floating house eviction, he decided to float downstream and back to the country of his birth.
“It took about four or five days’ time,” Yang Kai told CamboJA of the journey to the border. His wife slept behind him in a hammock on the couple’s floating home, which is now tied up on the Cambodian side of the border near the Ka’am Samnor international checkpoint.
But the journey back into Vietnam is less certain than simply floating over the aquatic boundary. Now, Yang Kai and hundreds of other mostly ethnic Vietnamese residents of the floating homes have been stopped at the border, held back by Vietnamese officials and an apparent blockade of the Mekong made up of sand barges and other large boats. One witness told CamboJA the area is also patrolled by faster, smaller watercraft prohibiting any crossings. With that kind of enforcement, nobody is quite sure when, or if, these marooned families will be allowed to enter Vietnam, especially as authorities point to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in that country as a rationale to forbid entry to the floating households.
“The authorities of Vietnam and Cambodia used ships and ferries to block the water border. They do not let us enter,” Yang Kai said.
For now, the families at the border are waiting for a more long-term solution in Ka’am Samnor commune, located in the Loeuk Dek district of Kandal province.
Chap Chanvithyea, the district governor, said on Tuesday that approximately 83 floating houses with as many as 436 people had recently arrived in Ka’am Samnor, on the western banks of the Mekong. This aquatic community brought with it about 119 structures for fish farming, which is a key source of income for the river residents.
Even more families are living on the river’s eastern bank, in Prey Veng province. Seng Thea, governor of Peam Chor district said about 70 families making up a total of roughly 170 people have landed in his area with 32 fish farming structures.
Thea said district authorities had inspected the river blockade but that the matter was ultimately for higher-level officials to handle.
“They arrived at Vietnam’s border but Vietnam dismissed them,” he said. “They used ships to pull their floating house about 200 meters from the border line.”
He said representatives from the ethnic Vietnamese civil society in Cambodia had brought supplies several days ago to floating house residents as they waited in hopes of crossing the demarcation. Some of the people now on the banks do not have Cambodian identification cards, Thea said, but others have permanent residency and have lived in the country since 1979.
Though many of the ethnic Vietnamese people who live on Cambodia’s waterways are stateless, that isn’t true for all. Chanvithyea said those who have arrived in Loeuk Dek district also have Cambodian residency documents. The district governor said local officials are working with members of the floating households to ensure they don’t stay too long.
“We prepared the order for them and we do not allow them to live with anarchy and they also made the contract with our authorities,” Chanvithyea said. “They are not allowed to live here permanently but we will allow them to stay temporarily until their fish are big enough for them to sell. Then they will remove their floating houses by themselves.”
Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn also emphasized that the floating houses would only be a short-term fixture. He said authorities would resolve the situation without discrimination or violence but with respect for human rights.
“We implement this case based on the law,” Sophorn said, pointing out the permanent residency status of some of the residents to add that these people are legally allowed to live in Cambodia.
Still, for those who are now waiting along the banks for either passage into Vietnam or for their farmed fish to mature, this transitional period is turning out to be a long one.
Yang Thi Neu, 25, is now staying in a floating home in Ka’am Samnor commune. She told CamboJA at the riverbank that originally she’d come from Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov district, where she was born, after the eviction order. But as with Yang Kai, she continued, once her family reached the border, Vietnamese authorities turned them away, citing the COVID-19 situation.
“Now, we are facing difficulty because we cannot do any business or fishing. We do not have anyone to buy the fish that we are farming,” Thi Neu said. “We don’t have income now, so we just sleep and eat.”
Even once the fish are ready for sale, there’s no guarantee they’ll raise enough money to keep community members financially afloat.
Yang Kai told CamboJA he’d borrowed a total of $12,000 from four lenders in the capital’s Chbar Ampov district to fund his fish farm. Now, he’s not sure who will buy the fish when they’re finally big enough.
“Two debtors followed me here and they demanded their money back — but I do not have money to pay them because I have not sold my fish yet,” he said.
The evictions in Phnom Penh called to attention once again the makeshift conditions of those living on the water.
At the time the notice to clear out was made public, many residents told CamboJA that they did not want to live on the water, citing safety concerns on their floating structures. But with no clear options to resettle on land, especially for those residents who are officially stateless, the rivers of Cambodia have had to make do for a home.
Phnom Penh deputy Governor Keut Chhe told CamboJA that the full number of people living on the waterways has not been fully recorded in the past. However, he said authorities in 2019 had counted the families living on the water in Prek Pnov district and later found that the floating houses and other unpermitted structures in the river had increased.
“If you build a house on land, you will have to apply for a permit and be written down as a statistic,” he said, explaining the localized nature of counting floating houses. “[River residents] just do it and we cannot collect the statistics, so we follow the real situation.”
On June 12, Chhe said the people living in floating houses had generally cooperated with the municipality’s decision to remove what it described as illegal residences on the river. He told CamboJA that households managing fish farms would be allowed to stay on the edge of Phnom Penh between the city’s Prek Pnov district and Kandal province until their fish were old enough to be sold. However, he said then, the people who just have floating houses but do not raise fish would need to find their own housing elsewhere.
Nguveng Yang Hong, 46, is one of those people now waiting in Prek Pnov near the provincial border.
Born in Kampong Chhnang province in 1975, Yang Hong and his family left Cambodia for Vietnam before returning to the kingdom in 1982. He had lived in Prek Pnov for more than 10 years before the eviction order came through.
He said the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh and the Association of Khmer-Vietnamese in the Kingdom had helped arrange with authorities to allow residents to stay until their fish matured. After that, Yang Hong isn’t sure where he’ll go.
“After six months, it depends on the authorities and where they order us to live,” he said. “If they do not allow us to live in floating houses, we will find any rental houses to live in.”
Neither Sim Chy, president of the Khmer-Vietnamese Association, nor the Vietnamese embassy provided comment to CamboJA. Keo Vanthan, spokesman of the Cambodian General Department of Immigration, also could not be reached for comment.
Ny Sokha, head of the monitoring section at human rights group Adhoc, said immigration concerns are found across the world, but said countries need to receive their people if and when they are deported from other places. He pointed to deportations of Cambodian nationals from the US as an example.
“So for Vietnamese immigrants, if they come to live in Cambodia legally, Cambodia must respond to solve the problem of removing their homes from the river and allowing them to live anywhere appropriate,” Sokha said. “But if they came to live illegally, it means that they are illegal immigrants, so we must deport them to their country.”
Still, the matter is less clear with individuals of Vietnamese descent who are born and raised in Cambodia and possibly without documentation of any kind.
Pech Pisey, executive director of the Cambodia office of rights monitor Transparency International, said enforcement of immigration law is important but must be done with respect to human rights. He said Cambodia should push back against Vietnam’s use of COVID-19 as a reason to reject its nationals and said the countries should work together to find a solution.
“Vietnam is concerned about COVID but receiving their citizens is not a worry,” Pisey said. “We must push Vietnam to cooperate with sending nationals back to their country as per the law.” (Additional reporting by Chea Sokny)