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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Funding cut for returnee program

Funding cut for returnee program

An "internal change in priorities" at USAID has cut funding for the Returnee

Integration Support Project (RISP), which will soldier on with limited resources

until Septmeber 8, 2008, before ending operations.

Some 2,100 Cambodian

nationals are still set for deportation from the US to Cambodia. With the end of

RISP, the newcomers will be left without any services upon arrival.

"They have cut millions across the board," said RISP director Dr George

Ellis, speaking about the shift in USAID funding priorities. "It wasn't just us.

Our final funding will come in September. Subsequent funds will not be

forthcoming."

Without funding it will no longer be possible to maintain

many of the services that RISP currently provides. The problem is most acute for

those who depend on RISP's mental health services, some of whom, because of

their condition, cannot live unaided in Cambodian society.

"A

substantial part of our budget goes on maintaining the Special Needs House

(SNH)," said Ellis. "What will happen if this place closes? The guys living

there can't survive on the streets, I don't know what will happen to

them."

Holly Bradford, founder of Korsang, a local harm-reduction NGO

that employees about 20 returnees, said there is a small but significant number

of returnees who are entirely dependant on the SNH.

"There tend to be

one or two in every group that is sent back to Cambodia who have serious mental

health problems," she said. "They really can't cut this part of RISP's program -

those guys need the SNH and the care it provides. To take it away and leave them

to fend for themselves would be a massive violation of their human

rights."

Aside from an emphasis on the importance of maintaining the SNH,

reactions from the returnee population to RISP's funding cut has been muted, a

result, perhaps, of the somewhat ambivalent relationship between the project and

its purported beneficiaries.

"When the RISP program was set up I thought

it would provide useful support but it didn't," said one Korsang-employee and

returnee who goes by the name of Wicked. "Instead, I looked to the other

returnees for advice and support on what's going on."

RISP has provided

support to newly arrived returnees, for example, temporary accommodation, food,

and help with finding employment. But the project has proved unable to help many

returnees with the essential task of navigating Cambodian bureaucracy.

"Many of our [returnee] staff don't have Cambodian ID cards or

passports," said Bradford. "But they really need them. It would have been good

if RISP could have helped them with getting the documents they

need."

Many returnees have found that it is advice from their fellow

returnees, not from the US-funded integration project, that has proved most

valuable in helping them adapt to Cambodia.

"We really turn to one and

other for support not, to RISP," said a returnee who goes by the name of Chan.

"We all look out for each other. I learn a lot from the guys who have been here

for a while, it helps me a lot."

Some argue that the fact that returnees

themselves have emerged as the best people to help other returnees integrate and

adapt to Cambodia should guide any future evolution of RISP.

"It has to

be a returnee run organization," said Bradford. "They know what is best for

them. They just need a little guidance. I'd like to see the whole project [RISP]

returnee run."

Ellis said that RISP was already "a structured, competent

returnee-run program."

Bradford wants Korsang to become an entirely

returnee-run organization in the not too distant future.

"I am going to

leave as soon as the [returnee staff] are ready to take over," said Bradford.

"That is what this whole thing is about. It is for the returnees. It's there

project."

To achieve this aim, Korsang are keen to build a stronger

working relationship with RISP

"We can't hire every returnee that

arrives," said Bradford. "If they keep coming sporadically then it might be ok,

but we want to collaborate with [RISP] more."

Over the last 18 months,

two plane loads of returnees, totaling 24 people, have arrived in the Kingdom.

One of the biggest challenges that RISP has tried to address, is how to help

people who have been deported against their will to develop a sense of

citizenship in Cambodia, said Ellis.

Closer collaboration with Korsang

might help RISP to address this challenge. The front-line harm reduction work

with intravenous drug users that the NGO carries out has proved a remarkably

effective way of helping new arrivals both understand Cambodian society and come

to terms with this new stage of their life.

"It works well to help the

[returnees] find work in a way that can give back to Cambodian society," said

Bradford. "These kids grew up in America, they are not fatalistic Buddhists.

They believe in redemption."

Developing projects which enable returnees

to make a positive contribution to Cambodian society could also help dispel the

general ambivalence that many donors feel towards RISP.

"It's a tough

sell," said Ellis. "How do you make convicted felons a worthy recipient of

funds?"

Bradford, who has just secured a large UNICEF grant for Korsang,

which will allow the NGO to incorporate dance, music, and art activities into

their harm reduction program, says it is easy.

"I think the big problem

with RISP was that they just didn't know what they should do," she said. "I

think they need to create more projects like Korsang. For example, programs that

work on gang intervention, child protection. These guys [the returnees] are

amazing, they have great skills, and Cambodia needs their skills. There is no

one doing this kind of front line work at the moment."

Thun Saray,

president of local human rights NGO Adhoc, said that developing mechanisms which

allow returnees to make a positive contribution to Cambodian society is

essential.

"We must help them understand Cambodian society and the

mentality of the Khmer people," he said. "They should be helped to become active

members of our society, as if they are isolated and marginalized, this will

create problems in the future - we need to help them integrate."

Many

people, both in Cambodia and America, take the view that returnees "screwed up

their chance and got what they deserve," said Ellis. But the absurdity of this

view becomes apparent when the situation is put into its broader context, he

said.

"Go back 30 years," he said. "These people were traumatized in

Cambodia, then sent to a country where they didn't understand the religion,

language or politics, they didn't have the same social capital, they were

stigmatized."

But the returnees want neither sympathy nor handouts from

RISP, said Wicked.

"We just need someone to work with us," he said.

"Don't be afraid of us, we are more scared of you than you are of us, we just

want someone to guide us and bring out our talent, to give us a break."

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