After more than 35 years in a Kafkaesque stateless limbo, the former Cambodian refugee gave up his birth name and selected a distinctly Vietnamese name as a condition of acquiring citizenship in Viet Nam, his home since 1975. It did indeed symbolize a happy ending for some of the very last victims of the anarchy unleashed by Cambodian dictator Pol Pot in the 1970s.
His original name, Sophalay De Monteiro, carried with it a proud ancestry – Portuguese missionaries to Cambodia in the 18th century – but also made him stand out in his adopted homeland every day of those 35 years.
“Giving it up was a small price to pay for finally getting Vietnamese citizenship,” he told UNHCR, eagerly displaying his new papers, including the all-important family book, which regulates all dealings between citizens and the government in Viet Nam.
“This is very important because it means we can have ID cards,” said Phuc, 50. “We can do many things. I can now get a passport and travel outside the country.”
It means he can do much more basic things as well – such as buy a motorbike. In a country where almost every family owns a motorbike, thousands of stateless former Cambodian refugees like Phuc could not even legally buy this common form of transportation.
Phuc married a Vietnamese woman 32 years ago, soon after he came to the country. What pained him the most was watching their two children suffer because they were also stateless due to his lack of legal status.
Over the past few years, UNHCR has worked with Viet Nam to remove decades-old bureaucratic obstacles and enable this small group of former refugees – the last of hundreds of thousands who sought refuge in Viet Nam in the 1970s – to get citizenship.
Largely unnoticed, Viet Nam has become a leader in Asia and the world in ending and preventing statelessness.
Most of the Cambodian refugees resettled or went home by the early 1990s, but a few thousand, like Phuc, were disowned by Cambodia. Unable to return, they became stateless.
“If we’d had citizenship when we arrived in Vietnam, I could have done more for my children, earned more,” Phuc says, the pain clearly showing in his face. “My children should have had a much better life, but the family ended up going backwards instead of forwards.
“I didn’t realize that their lives would be very difficult because they did not have a nationality. When we got to Viet Nam they had nothing, and back then we didn’t realize that citizenship would be important if they wanted any benefits in society.”
His daughter Sheila, a star student, had to pass up a scholarship in Japan. His son, Kostal, recalls being excluded from the Communist youth movement as a small schoolboy, and later found even his courtship prospects blocked.
“Finally I met a girl I loved and her parents didn’t care about the ID card, but we couldn’t legally marry because I didn’t have the ID card,” says Kostal De Monteiro, 29. He eventually got citizenship through his Vietnamese mother, so was able to keep his original name.
Phuc felt he could never be fully accepted as long as he was stateless, despite learning Vietnamese fluently and integrating well into this community known to tourists for the elaborate system of tunnels that the Viet Cong used to evade the U.S. Army during the war in the 1960s and 1970s.
These days life is brighter for the whole family. Phuc, one of some 2,300 former Cambodians who received citizenship in 2010 or who are on track to do so, was a respected leader of refugees in this community and is still advising his fellow new citizens on the rights their new status confers.
At 50, he’s no longer planning much for his own future, but rejoicing in his children’s prospects. His daughter hopes to study in France now that she has citizenship. His son has been promoted to senior accountant, gotten a raise, can buy property, and is being offered business trips abroad now that he can get a passport.
“The differences come down to who has a nationality and who is stateless,” says Phuc. People who have always had citizenship, identity cards and passports seldom consider their value, he said. But those without them know all too well how valuable a legal identity is.
“I’m very, very happy,” he said. “My children will have much, much brighter futures because of the benefits of being Vietnamese, so they can enjoy their lives.”
By Kitty McKinsey (UNHCR)
In Cu Chi, Viet Nam