After a record high in 2011, deportations of Cambodians from the US dropped 42 per cent last year, according to figures obtained yesterday.
In 2012, the Returnee Integration Support Center, an NGO that provides assistance to deported Cambodians, recorded 51 deportations. The year before, the centre fielded 88 − a spike that critics of the process attributed to a presidential administration attempting to look tough on immigration.
Since January, just two new deportees have arrived – a pair who came in just last week – bringing the total number forcibly flown to Cambodia to 388 since the government first signed a repatriation agreement with the US in March 2002 to deport non-citizens convicted of felony-level crimes.
Keo Sarith, a co-director of the support centre, said he could not explain the decrease, most of which occurred during the latter half of the year.
“We’re not sure about this,” he said. He speculated that the 2012 election of President Barack Obama may have slowed the rate temporarily, or that Cambodian authorities had their hands tied dealing with the funeral arrangements for King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
It can’t be attributed to the Obama administration’s pushing through of immigration reforms last year that applied to children of immigrants, because the reforms bypassed those convicted of crimes.
Many sent back were children of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge into Thai refugee camps in the 1970s, and have never set foot in Cambodia. Anti-deportation advocates say that not only is Cambodia a land wholly foreign to them, but that a large number are sent directly from prison and have little chance of rehabilitation or support once they get to the country.
Of those who have been sent back since 2002, 18 are currently in prison and 10 suffer from a mental or physical disability. Several struggle with drugs and alcohol abuse.
While there are success stories, the odds are daunting.
“You can say most still struggle on a daily basis, due to fact that they are Americanised and never knew, and will never understand in most cases, the hardships of living and struggling to get by in [a developing country]. These individuals are basically traumatised by the fact they are here, whereas they should be with their family, loved ones and kids there in America,” said Kem Villa, co-director of finance for the centre.
Operating on a shoestring budget that has dwindled in recent years because of smaller donations, the centre is able to provide temporary housing, help with obtaining identification documents and job assistance. The going available stipend is $4 per day.
The support is not nearly enough to settle into life here, and that compounds the cultural differences many encounter.
“When you first come back, it’s kind of a hard time,” said a returnee who identified himself as Song.
He came in one of the first groups in 2002, and has since worked with many Cambodians through a program that works with the integration centre.
“For a young guy that grew up in the US, the young guy doesn’t know about the culture, the way they live in Cambodia, and that’s hard for them. It takes a lot of time to learn how to live life here.
“For myself, it took me a year to catch up and to get back to my culture. When we stay in the US, we don’t speak Khmer much and kind of like forget about it.
“The young guy that left from Cambodia [at] about four or five years old, he doesn’t understand Khmer . . . and when they come to Cambodia, they’ve lost everything. They feel lost.”