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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Caught between Iraq and a hard place

Caught between Iraq and a hard place

W hen Maki, his wife and two kids left Baghdad in November 1994, fleeing across the

Iraqi border to Jordan, little did he know that he and his family would end up in

Phnom Penh three months later, living life in limbo, and eking out an existence from

day to day with no idea what tomorrow would bring.

"If I go back to Iraq they would cut my hand off," explains Maki, adding

that he would also get 15 years in jail, have his forehead branded for life to indicate

he was a criminal and maybe even have one of his ears cut off.

And all this, so he says, for the crime of illegally importing materials to run a

chicken farm.

When he left home after bribing his way out of jail, Maki's plan was to try and get

to Sweden which has a substantial expatriate Iraqi community, many of whom escaped

their homeland with similar fears of persecution.

"I sold some things and ran away to Jordan," says Maki.

In Amman he met some "smugglers" who helped him get tickets to Bangkok

and false Swedish passports so that, from Thailand, he and his family could fly on

to Stockholm.

"When we tried to leave Bangkok the Thais turned us back," he says.

Managing to find a way to Malaysia, he was arrested in Kuala Lumpur and put in jail

for two days.

He says the Malaysian government confiscated his plane tickets to Europe and gave

him and his family free tickets to Phnom Penh, where they have languished ever since.

Maki's road to Phnom Penh is not unique nor without some reason.

As Cambodia is the only country in the region which has signed the UN's 1951 Convention

Relating to the Status of Refugees, people like Maki are not treated here as "illegal

immigrants" as they are in neighboring Thailand and Malaysia.

Hence, if people like Maki find themselves stuck in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and they

can muster together the cash, the local authorities will let them catch a one-way

flight to Cambodia.

For the time being the Phnom Penh office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

(UNHCR) is handling Maki's case.

Normally, this would be done by the Ministry of Interior, but in the absence of an

established office with trained staff and adequate resources, the government has

agreed to let UNHCR handle the responsibility of dealing with refugees.

UNHCR, for its part, is providing training to ministry staff to help the Immigration

Department get up to speed.

After a preliminary interview, Maki was initially given a "To Whom It May Concern"

letter which says that he is under the protection of UNHCR and that his case is under

review.

He was also given a small stipend to cover basic living expenses.

After several months, Maki was accorded refugee status and the process then began

to see if he could be resettled in a third country or returned "in safety and

dignity" to Iraq.

A third possibility is that, barring the ability to proceed with the first two options,

Maki and his family remain in Cambodia.

UNHCR's Walter Hoffman says that they're dealing with about 20 cases at present,

including several Africans, some Middle Easterners - like Maki - and a few Chinese.

Hoffman notes that the Cambodian government is understandably concerned about being

flooded with refugees but he denies that this could become a problem.

"This is still not an attractive asylum country," says Hoffman.

"The UNHCR is not worried. There are few job opportunities here, the country

is still developing, there are security problems and language problems."

Hoffman also notes that the Cambodian government "should be proud of their human

rights record in this area" especially since so many other countries have balked

at signing the '51 Convention.

He adds his hope that, since so many of those - like King Sihanouk, Prince Ranariddh,

Ieng Mouly and Son Sann - were once refugees themselves and have inked their names

to Cambodia's accession to the '51 Convention back in September 1992, perhaps Cambodia

will remain sympathetic to the plight of the Makis of the world.

In Maki's case, that continued sympathy may be crucial to his very survival, especially

since his desire to go to Sweden may not come about.

On Oct. 14 the BBC reported that there are moves afoot among conservative segments

of the Swedish government to repeal a liberal refugee policy which has been in place

for many years and that, overall, Sweden is "cracking down on refugees."

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