Kicked back to Cambodia:


Dean Cornish and Megan Palmer

Meet Khan, he's 31 years old and calls California home, this is his first trip to Cambodia and it's going to be a long one. Khan was recently deported from the US and he can never go back.

KHAN, DEPORTEE: Welcome to Cambodia, where the dream is made of.

His parents are Cambodian and Khan was born in a Thai refugee camp, he came to the US as a one-year-old but now he's stuck in a place he only knows from his parent's war stories.

KHAN: This is what American people do.

REPORTER: Eat hamburgers?

KHAN: And take pictures before they eat it.

REPORTER: When was the first time you've ever been to Cambodia?

KHAN: Never. Just nine months ago. This is the first time I've ever been to Cambodia.

Khan is here because of an agreement between the US and Cambodia to take back refugees who have fallen foul of the law.

KHAN: I committed a crime in 2004 for basically stealing cars, that was my past. I did something 10 years ago, I know it was wrong and it’s just like now I'm here. It's just mind blowing. I can't register it.

Cambodian Americans are in a unique position. Any crime that carries a year or more prison term or even multiple petty crimes can result in automatic deportation, even if they've never been to Cambodia. Khan tells me he feels like he's being punished twice and his new sentence is a life-long one. Khan's mum and sister live in Stockton, California. They have no idea if they'll ever see him again.

REPORTER: What's been on the menu tonight?

SOKHOM HIN, KHAN’S SISTER: Well we have beef stir fry, barbecue chicken. That was Khan's favourite. He requested for that all the time when he was here.

For the last nine months, this has been as close as Khan has come to a family dinner.

SOKHOM HIN: Hi, brother.

NIECE: Hi, uncle.

SOKHOM HIN: My daughter, that was her favourite uncle. She was very upset when he got deported and she asks about him all the time. "When is he going to come back?"

KHAN: It hurts. I'm telling you. My niece the other day, oh man - it means a lot, you know. The simplest thing.

Khan and others like him are at the centre of a moral debate. Is it right to deport someone permanently to a country they have never known? What happens when the children of war and genocide are displaced all over again?

VENG, MOTHER: Deport my son back to Cambodia, makes me sad. My kid don’t have a family in Cambodia.

Khan's mum Veng fled Cambodia under the shadow of the Khmer Rouge. Two million people were killed in the genocide. Pol Pot forced the population into torture prisons or labour camps. Khan's mum spent six years in one of those camps before she was able to escape. As a refugee to the US, she never thought her son would be forced back into the land she fled. I went with Khan to a memorial of Cambodia's dark history.

KHAN: Really depressing. No words can explain that. Really sad.

And perhaps for the first time he realises how lucky his family was to get out.

KHAN: It gives me chills.

One-year-old Khan and his family came to the US as refugees in 1985. They describe it as moving from one warzone to another. Like many Cambodians they were settled in areas of America already overrun with crime and gang violence.

KHAN: There was always shooting, there was always violence somewhere.

VENG: Too hard for me because I don’t speak English very well but I’m happy to live in the United States.

The family trusted in the law at the time which meant that as permanent residents they were safe in America and safe from deportation.

KHAN: You know, I thought I was permanent, you know I thought I was there legally, forever there. You can't remove me from there. Basically that's what permanent means.

He was wrong. The laws changed, in 1996, the US broadened the types of crimes that led to deportation. It meant even something minor like repeated shoplifting could see you getting kicked out of the country. Khan was shocked to be picked up a decade after his conviction. On leaving America, he was stripped of identity.

KHAN: They took my driver's licence and my green card and my Social Security card that I had in my wallet at that time.

REPORTER: What do you have now?

KHAN: Nothing.

Cambodia accepts these deportees but then offers no assistance to get a local ID which they need to work, rent a house or even get a phone. This is Wicced, he was deported from the US 11 years ago. Dateline first met him in 2009 as he was still coming to terms with his new life and new family in Cambodia.

WICCED, DEPORTEE: My daughters, they're half American. What happens when I want them to go off to college, to Harvard or something? To high school or visit their grandparents in the States? I can't take them. Hello. Anybody home?

Now he's helping other returnees adjust like Khan who he mentors.

WICCED: Looks like you just made it home, hu? I can share my feelings with them, what I went through and what they should expect as well, that's what I can offer as a friend, as a fellow deportee. So how’s life after America?

KHAN: So how’s life after America? So how do you like the food out here?

WICCED: Loving it, dude.

KHAN: Loving it?

WICCED: Loving it.

Wicced has carved out a life here now but it's taken time to realise that his future is in Cambodia.

WICCED: I'm here. I got deported to Cambodia. Let's move on with life.

But even after 11 years he still feels isolated here.

WICCED: And my dad passing away last year and I couldn't be there for that and I had to watch him go through all that, just through Skype. It's messed up. It's terrible. We all need to be there for our family, especially through times like that.

New deportees continue to arrive. Wicced has no shortage of people to help through their first tough years.

WICCED: A lot of new guys are really frustrated, you can even say angry and I think angry is probably the right word because I was pretty much angry as well.

DEPORTEE: They put us in a land that we don't know nothing about. What the hell? We just dropped off and then get fit in, right? This is bullshit.

These guys tell me they've slipped through the cracks, they're neither American or Cambodian.

DEPORTEE: They put us in a place we know nothing about. And there's no kind of line of help to support us. No housing, foundation, you know what I mean? Even just learning about the culture.

DEPORTEE: A third World country. I'm finding it hard to get a job because I have tattoos.

Local Cambodians have little sympathy, telling them they've messed up their golden opportunity in America.

DEPORTEE: We look at them as locals but technically we're locals too now. We're not accepted as a native.

It's Cambodian New Year's Eve, American style. The large Cambodian community in the US is celebrating.

CROWD: Happy New Year!

But behind the smiles lies the stressful issue of deportation. Almost 500 Cambodian Americans have been deported, 2,000 more have been told they'll be banished but haven't been told when.

DAVID ROS, AWAITING DEPORTATION: I'm on a list for deportation so it could happen any day. I don't know. The hardest part about this thing is not knowing.

David is one of thousands living in limbo. He served 19 years for a serious crime and says he doesn't deserve a second punishment.

DAVID ROS: Some of us committed an offence when we were kids, like myself, I was 16. Everybody deserves a second chance. I think that one is good. Yummy. I have two kids that I support. The biggest concern that I have is for my family when I'm deported because I'm the sole provider for my family. See?

I hit the road to get a legal opinion as to how this happens.

DANA LEE MARKS, JUDGE: So I'm Judge Dana Lee Marks, I am the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. We describe immigration law as being like the old show, The Twilight Zone, where now you're entering an alternate legal universe. It is highly dysfunctional.

Dysfunctional and a hot topic of debate, those doing the deporting are overwhelmed with huge case loads. Judge Marks tells me the system is flawed.

DANA LEE MARKS: If you are a long-time permanent resident that came as a child and has crimes that may cause you to be removed by the US, if your not given forgiveness by the immigration court, you're banished and exiled from the only country that you know.

In a lot of cases that forgiveness isn't possible, rehabilitation isn't even considered. Whether you're a murderer or a petty criminal, the result is the same - automatic removal by order of the US Government.

DANA LEE MARKS: We live in the communities too. We don't want people who are dangerous to our neighbours to be here but we also don't want to send people who have genuinely rehabilitated themselves, who have changed their lives, turned their lives around. We don't want to separate those people from their family members and friends. We're applying these blanket rules which sometimes function well but sometimes don't achieve the result most people would think is the most fair.

With no local language or ID comes the challenge of employment, many deportees from Western countries end up homeless, like Hong. He grew up and went to school in Western Sydney and now he sleeps rough on the streets of Cambodia. The USA is not the only country deporting refugees.

HONG UNG, AUSTRALIAN DEPORTEE: I've been staying in Australia for a long, long time you see. I came to be like an Aussie you know.

REPORTER: You sound a bit like an Aussie.

HONG UNG: Ah, since I was a young boy, I went to Australia.

REPORTER: Australia, right?

HONG UNG: I was a young boy.

REPORTER: You're a refugee?


REPORTER: Right? From the Khmer Rouge?


REPORTER: How come you live back here?

HONG UNG: I got deported.

REPORTER: You got deported from Australia?


REPORTER: How long did you live in Australia for?

HONG UNG: For 22 years.

REPORTER: And what was the story about you getting deported?

HONG UNG: I think I made a mistake, I became a bad boy, was like a gangster and all that and suddenly I get deported.

If Hong was a naturalised Australian citizen he couldn't have been deported, but 30 years ago when the rest of his family attended a citizenship ceremony Hong, just a young boy was off with his friends and he couldn't be found and he missed out. Dateline accessed Hong’s criminal record under freedom of information. We discovered his deportable crime was demanding money from a shop. He didn't have a weapon but he did say his that friends would come and get them if they refused. He was 19 years old.

HONG UNG: In Australia, everything is good, it’s very, very good there, and especially in Cambodia it’s not very good. I wish I could go back.

Hong's now ill with cancer. He's not permitted to fly home to Australia for medical treatment or to visit his ageing parents. We spoke to Hong's lawyer about his case.

RAY TURNER, HONG’S LAWYER: In effect, the deportation of a person is an additional punishment, not only on the person who committed the offences but on their families. In my experience it is the most unfair and un-Australian of any of our laws.

Cambodia is a country where business is booming for the wealthy elite. Foreign investment and aid money flows into Phnom Penh but beyond the sprouting skyscrapers and shiny SUVs, most of the population sees little benefit. Receiving other country's so-called rejects is profitable here, as we saw when Australia paid $55 million to the Cambodian Government just to receive five refugees from Nauru. These Cambodian American deportees want to know what price was paid for their displacement.

We understand the US Government pays Cambodia thousands if not millions of dollars to receive these deportees. So far we've had repeated attempts with the Immigration Ministry to confirm this and they have said no, but we are going to try again. I'm trying to ask this guy, General Sok Phal, Director of the immigration Ministry. So far I filed multiple requests in Cambodian and English and they've been lost, ignored and eventually denied.

REPORTER: Did he give a reason why we could not have the interview?

He could confirm with me the request had been denied for an interview but he couldn't tell me why. I wonder if you knew why that was?

Eventually I tracked him down.

REPORTER: Did you get that request, Sir?

So the question of money changing hands still remains unanswered. Getting to the bottom of the politics behind deportation is a challenge but Wicced and others are determined to fight the system. He and his sister-in-law are lobbying the US Government, their organisation One Love is trying to stop the deportation of other American residents.

MIA LIA KIERNAN, SISTER-IN-LAW AND LOBBYIST: People just keep getting deported and keep getting deported and being in limbo is such a devastating place to sit for an entire family.

Having gotten little traction in the US, they found the UN is willing to listen.

MIA LIA KIERNAN: Moving it to the United Nations was a strategic move and I think a way for us to open up channels of deeper understanding of where our community is coming from and why we want the deportation to stop for people to be returned home.

CAMPAIGN VIDEO: Without warning our people began being taken away, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, sisters and people who served their time. “ I always thought that being deported was a life sentence.”

Their claim is not just that deportation displaces families forever but also that Cambodian American residents have harsher deportation rules than residents from other countries.

MIA LIA KIERNAN: What we are arguing for is that Cambodia follow a similar model to the Vietnamese repatriation agreement. The Cambodian agreement is three pages long. The US-Vietnam agreement is eight or nine pages long with a lot more specific criteria, a lot more standards in terms of how to prove someone is Vietnamese, a lot more protections.

Protections like exemptions for refugees who arrive during the Vietnam War, inability to deport people to a country where they've never lived and a proviso if people are deported they're given time to get their affairs in order and say goodbye to their families. None of these privileges are currently offered to Cambodian US residents.

MIA LIA KIERNAN: To be removed to the other side of the world is not just unconstitutional it’s completely inhumane and a violation of human rights at many levels.

Mia and Wicced are hopeful these changes can happen this year at the sunset of the Obama Administration.

MIA LIA KIERNAN: He’s starting to do all kinds of crazy things, right, as presidents do at the end of their terms. So he’s doing all this stuff around mass incarceration, releasing people from prison, giving people pardons, all this kind of stuff, right. We think that this is totally a possibility to do.

But it's cold comfort for Khan knowing he wouldn't be stuck in a foreign country if he were Vietnamese. Instead, he's here in Cambodia for life. He's training to be an English teacher but he's still struggling with the day to day.

KHAN: It's pretty depressing. You wake up, it feels like you have no life here. You don't have really good friends to talk to or go to or have barbecues and enjoy, kind of like you're living life. There's no life out here for them.

Khan's unemployed. His family are the only thing keeping him off the streets.

KHAN: My mum supports me and my family whatever they can. They kind of gather up a little bit, $200, $300 a month, you know, trying to make it out here and trying to make sure I get fed a little bit and it's kind of hard for them at this moment.

It's a situation that's hard for everyone. Khan was permanently removed from the US in the same month his sister was killed by a drunk driver. He wasn't allowed out of immigration custody to attend her funeral.

KHAN: They said, "You have to call your mum." How would you feel? You want justice. You want to be there for your family too. Just like any human being.

Veng wants both her children.

VENG: It makes me too sad, I lost my daughter too. I lost two kids. I feel…yeah.

This is not the life Khan's family expected when they were given a second chance after the war. His deportation and that of others like him is displacing yet another generation of Cambodians.

REPORTER: Did you ever think you'd end up living in Cambodia?

KHAN: Never a day. Never a day. I thought I would never see Cambodia. This is not home. Home is where you have your family and being out here alone in this Third World country, who do I run to? Who do I talk to? I have nobody.

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15th March 2016

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