The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has sweated away
at repatriating more than 100,000 Cambodian refugees from Thailand, is now looking
at the problem of several thousand almost forgotten Cambodians living in camps in
"In light of developments in Cambodia we would like to stop making them a refugee
population," a UNHCR official said.
But the plight of the refugees, 90 percent ethnic Chinese from mainly urban and trading
backgrounds, is an extremely delicate one with political undertones, he added.
"It became fairly sensitive because it seemed that if they returned en masse
it might be seen as a Vietnamese ploy to take over the country," said the official,
who requested anonymity.
The three anti-Phnom Penh factions have repeatedly alleged that Vietnam is trying
to colonize Cambodia by sending thousands of settlers across the border.
The reality, however, is that most of the 13,000 Cambodian refugees in Vietnam-who
suffered heavily at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979-would opt
to remain in Vietnam if their dreams of resettlement in the west are dashed.
Imran Riza, head of the UNHCR office in Ho Chi Minh City, said that only about a
thousand Cambodian refugees had come forward and expressed an interest in going back
home-most to rejoin relatives.
Despite the signing of the Paris peace accords last October ending more than a decade
of conflict, Riza said, "[The refugees] tend to be extremely cautious, as they
are watching the situation."
As to the chances of more choosing repatriation, he said, "It's going to depend
on getting back the first group and seeing their reactions."
In Vietnam the refugees have security, land, and relative freedom of movement compared
to Vietnamese refugees stuck in Hong Kong camps and the 270,000 Cambodians in Thailand.
Vietnamese provincial refugee officials run four camps: two in Song Be province neighboring
Cambodia and a further two at Cu Chi and Thu Duc, near Ho Chi Minh City.
"I would describe [the camps] more as settlements. . .because they are quite
spread out," Riza said, adding that the UNHCR has no on-site presence but provides
some assistance in the form of rice, cooking oil, and soap.
However, many of the refugees work outside the camps after obtaining three-month
passes from the government.
Others have set up their own businesses, such as one refugee entrepreneur who operates
a crocodile farm.
Those already employed will assimilate more easily into Vietnamese life-as most of
the refugees will likely have to do-but most camp residents dream of the promised
"Over half have some relationship with persons already resettled overseas-most
of them are hoping to be sponsored to go overseas," Riza said. "They hang
on; they don't do much productively because of this hope of resettlement."
A handful will likely win a prized flight to western countries through the Orderly
Departure Program (ODP) and a few hundred will return to Cambodia.
"For the remainder that don't go back we are thinking of some kind of local
settlement . . . [with] income generation to get them some level of self-sufficiency,"
At its height the Cambodian refugee population in Vietnam numbered 20,000, diminishing
by steady resettlement abroad.
One of those who found a bright new life overseas has returned to the land he left
13 years ago when he was 11 years old.
Reasey Poch returned to Phnom Penh in July to work on the Cornell University archival
project at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. In April 1979 he crossed the Kampot border
to Ha Tien with the remaining survivors of his family-his mother and two sisters.
The Chinese-Khmer family lived in Ho Chi Minh City for several months until they
were sent to a camp at Song Be, run by the Vietnamese government but with aid donated
Refugees had to help in agricultural work and movement was restricted during the
five years the Poch family was in the camp.
"Everyone was always waiting, hoping to leave," remembers Poch. "Every
time there was a family leaving, everyone else was so depressed for several days."
In 1984 Poch and his family finally managed to make their way to the United States
through the ODP program.
Poch visited his old camp last year, where he found people he'd grown up with still
"I felt sad for them, but also helpless," he said. "They don't have
much chance of coming to the States like I did and are still afraid to come back
to Cambodia. They remember the anti-Chinese feeling during the Lon Nol period and
they're also afraid of the civil war and unrest here."
Those who do venture back to Cambodia to check the situation out tend to stay, Poch
"Once they get here they realize it's not that bad," he said.