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  5. A Boat Without Anchors: Cambodia's Vietnamese Minority Still Looking for its Place in Society

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FOCUS June 2016 Volume 84

A Boat Without Anchors: Cambodia's Vietnamese Minority Still Looking for its Place in Society

Christoph Sperfeldt

Yang Oun can no longer remember when his ancestors arrived from Vietnam to Cambodia. All he knows is that his parents and grandparents were born in Cambodia and called this place their home. Yang Oun was born in 1964 from a Vietnamese father and a Chinese-Khmer mother. He grew up in a village predominately populated by Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese minority. Due to his Vietnamese name he was always perceived to be more “Vietnamese” than Cambodian. When the Khmer Rouge arrived at his village in April 1975, they separated the Vietnamese from the Khmer residents and forcefully deported his family, along with an estimated 150,000 to 170,000 other members of the Vietnamese minority, across the border to Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge forced them to leave behind all belongings and documents of their life in Cambodia. All the Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia were systematically killed by the Khmer Rouge. Now, the few senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime who are still alive are charged with genocide against the Vietnamese before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh.

In 1982, after several years in a refugee camp in Vietnam, Yang Oun returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power. He and his young family started a new life on one of the many floating villages along the Tonle Sap Lake in Kampong Chhnang province, nowadays one of Cambodia’s tourist attractions. Since the day of his return, the Cambodian authorities have treated him and his fellow returnees as “immigrants” or “foreign residents.” He has neither Cambodian nor Vietnamese nationality documents. His children have no birth certificates, and he claims that this is one reason they cannot go to school.

Ethnic Vietnamese Community
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. While 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 are comprised of diverse sub-groups. Such sub-groups include Cambodian citizens of Vietnamese origin; ethnic Vietnamese in mixed marriages with Khmer spouses; long-term residents of Cambodia; and more recent immigrants seeking economic opportunities. One of the most vulnerable groups is Cambodia’s long-term ethnic Vietnamese minority – the group Yang Oun arguably belongs to.

Tonle Sap Villagebw.jpg

In an attempt to shed light into the circumstances of Yang Oun’s situation and that of his community, a report – A Boat Without Anchors – explored the status of members of the Vietnamese minority population residing on three floating villages on the Tonle Sap in Kampong Chhnang province.1 All respondents in this research indicated that they, and in the majority of cases also their parents, were born in Cambodia. Taking account of the average age of the respondents, it is apparent that these ethnic Vietnamese communities – although not necessarily of the current composition – existed at the time of the French colonial protectorate, with many of these Vietnamese born on Cambodian territory, either before or shortly after the country’s independence in 1953. This suggests that this group belongs to one of the longest existing ethnic Vietnamese communities in Cambodia, as distinct from more recent Vietnamese immigrants.

The report then assessed the status of this specific group under the applicable Cambodian and Vietnamese nationality laws and considered how the authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam view and treat this group under the operation of their respective laws. All respondents seemed to be living legally in Cambodia and possessed various forms of documentation identifying them as “foreign residents.” The report concluded that Yang Oun and most members in this community appeared to be stateless. Although he has never heard of this term, Yang Oun knows the daily struggles associated with the reality of being a person without a nationality under the laws of any state. The ethnic Vietnamese minority group has frequently suffered under the often-times contentious bilateral relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. Recurrent dynamics of discrimination and exclusion against this group have complicated their integration into Cambodian society. Without citizenship and other documentation, numerous ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia do not have access to basic economic, political, and social rights and face an array of disadvantages, including limited freedom of movement, being unable to own land, and difficulty in accessing employment, education, health care, and legal protection. In addition, few development activities have taken place in these communities.2

Legal Status
More specifically, A Boat Without Anchors found that many Vietnamese minority communities have, by and large, 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.3 The absence of birth registration documentation for children in these 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 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.

Providing access to birth registration and granting of citizenship are not just a human rights issue, they are also a development issue. The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) of the United Nations recognized this link by stating under goal 16.9 the commitment of states to provide “by 2030 […] legal identity for all including birth registration.”4 In doing so, the sustainable development goals acknowledge that the means to prove legal identity are linked with participation in education and the formal economy, as well as civic empowerment.

Cambodia already recognizes the importance of civil registration. In collaboration with UNICEF, it has developed a National Strategic Plan for Identification that will guide acceleration of national efforts to increase the birth registration rate and identification in the country. These efforts should be continued and expanded, including awareness-raising among vulnerable populations and local authorities. Such activities would align with Cambodia’s support of the goals of the Asian and Pacific Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) Decade 2015-2024, under which the ministers jointly agreed to give “particular attention and take measures to reduce all barriers to civil registration and to ensure the registration of vital events among hard-to-reach and marginalized populations.”5

Continuing Concern
As the research for A Boat Without Anchors was limited in scope, its findings would not allow broader generalizations about the situation of all ethnic Vietnamese subgroups on the Tonle Sap Lake. However, the few secondary sources available on this topic suggest that the problems experienced by the respondents are a more widespread phenomenon, not only limited to Kampong Chhnang province – although the exact magnitude of affected populations remains unknown.6

After years of silence, the issue has also re-emerged on the radar of various mechanisms under international human rights instruments that Cambodia has ratified. During Cambodia’s last reporting cycle under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the CEDAW Committee expressed concern that “women of Vietnamese origin undergo considerable difficulties in the registration of births and the acquisition of Cambodian citizenship, which places them at risk of statelessness.” The CEDAW Committee therefore called upon Cambodia to “intensify efforts to facilitate the birth registration of children born to Vietnamese mothers and their acquisition of citizenship.”7 The Human Rights Committee similarly raised the issue during its last review of the implementation of the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and recommended that Cambodia “facilitate access to identification documentation” and “guarantee the right of children who were born on the territory of Cambodia to stateless parents to acquire a nationality.”8

In July 2013, Cambodia’s national parliamentary election saw much debate about the place of the country’s ethnic Vietnamese minority. While the contemporary politicized discourse in the country focused primarily on who should have a right to vote, few commentators or policy-makers addressed the underlying question of the social and legal status of this minority group in Cambodia. An immigrant census, conducted by Cambodian authorities in 2014 and 2015, saw hundreds of illegal Vietnamese immigrants being deported from the country.9 With the census focused on illegal immigrants, many legal residents in Cambodia who could be granted proper legal status under Cambodian law were not identified.

During the recent state visit to Cambodia by the Vietnamese President, a joint government statement expressed the hope that “the Kingdom of Cambodia would continue to take measures in ensuring the legitimate rights of Vietnamese residents, equally treated as other foreign residents in Cambodia in conformity with the laws and regulations of Cambodia.”10 Perhaps as sign of some official recognition of the need for action, some people in the floating villages recently received new immigration cards – with a promise to reassess their status after seven years. While it is difficult to assess the intentions of the government, it seems that authorities are now taking a more systematic approach to recording these populations.

Toward the Future
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 laws and with 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 majority Cambodians and members of the ethnic Vietnamese minority in Cambodia. Furthermore, expanding much needed services, in particular in the education and health sectors, to cover these and other marginalized communities would contribute to integrating them into Cambodian society and upholding their basic rights. As rights and obligations go hand in hand, this could provide a more sustainable basis for integration.

Unfortunately, Yang Oun will not see these efforts come to fruition, having passed away two years ago. However, he had always insisted that the main objective of his fight for recognition as a citizen was to spare his children and grandchildren from the disenfranchised life he had lived. It is here that local, national and international actions can make a difference, by increasing attention to statelessness and marginalization in Cambodia. This may go a long way towards providing future generations of the ethnic Vietnamese minority with equal rights and development opportunities in Cambodian society.

Christoph Sperfeldt is a PhD Scholar of the Centre for International Governance and Justice, School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), Australian National University.

For more information please contact: Christoph Sperfeldt, e-mail:


1 Lyma Nguyen and Christoph Sperfeldt, A Boat Without Anchors: A Report on the Legal Status of Ethnic Vietnamese Minority Populations in Cambodia under Domestic and International Laws Governing Nationality and Statelessness (Phnom Penh: Jesuit Refugee Service, 2012). Available at [accessed on 24 June 2016].
2 See Ang Chanrith, et al., 2014, “Limbo on Earth. An Investigative Report on the Current Living Conditions and Legal Status of Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia,” in Investigative Research Report No 2 (Phnom Penh: Minority Rights Organisation [MIRO], March 2014). Available at's%20Stateless%20Vietnamese%20Report%202014.pdf [accessed on 24 June 2016].
3 Sub-decree No.103 on Civil Status of 29 December 2000.
4 “Goal 16, Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions,” Sustainable Development Goals,
5 Paragraph 7 of the Ministerial Declaration to “Get Every One in the Picture” in Asia and the Pacific. The Declaration  also states the link of birth registration to international human rights standards:
 (e) Consistency with international human rights and legal principles, and national law. The Regional Action Framework is consistent with relevant international frameworks, including article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the principles of universality and non-discrimination. The Regional Action Framework should be applied consistently with the existing national law, rules and regulations; (notes omitted)
 Ministerial Declaration to “Get Every One in the Picture” in Asia and the Pacific, available at
6 See also Stefan Ehrentraut, “Perpetually Temporary: Citizenship and Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia,” 34(5) Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2011, pages 779-798.
7 CEDAW Committee, Concluding Observations on the Fourth and Fifth Periodic Report of Cambodia, United Nations (CEDAW/C/KHM/CO/4-5, 29 October 2013), paragraphs 30-31.
8 Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of Cambodia, United Nations  (CCPR/C/KHM/CO/2, 27 April 2015), paragraph 27.
9 See for instance Abby Seiff, “Cambodia’s Immigrant Census Stokes Fears Among Vietnamese,” UCA News, 17 October 2014.
10 Joint Statement between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Phnom Penh, 16 June 2016, paragraph 8. Available at Agence Kampuchea Press,