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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Nine flee, but most Khmer boat people sailing home

Nine flee, but most Khmer boat people sailing home

THE failed odyssey of the last of Cambodia's "boat people" ended this week

as most of them were forced to accept a one-way ticket home.

But nine defiant asylum-seekers were still on the run from immigration police on

the soon-to-be deserted Indonesian detention island of Galang off Sumatra.

The nine had refused to board an Indonesia Navy ship which sailed to Sihanoukville

on July 7, carrying 277 "non-refugees" who had spent years on Galang.

The nine broke out on June 19 and, at press time, had still not been caught but "they

have nowhere to go," said Sukanto, the first secretary of the Indonesian Embassy

in Phnom Penh.

Indonesian authorities were still combing Galang, which Sukanto said "was slightly

smaller than Singapore". The island's entire population of about 4,000 Vietnamese

and Cambodian "boat people" refugees are all to be returned home.

"As of now, we have no specific plan to deal with these people, but, of course,

we cannot force them to leave" Sukanto said.

"By standard rules of procedure, they will be considered illegal immigrants.

Anyone who enters a country without proper papers is committing an offense. Once

we catch them, we will persuade them to go back to Cambodia."

The exodus followed the visit of a Cambodian inter-ministerial delegation - whom

the nine fugitives had refused to meet on the eve of their escape - to negotiate

the return of the bulk of what was left of Cambodian refugees in East Asia.

It was hastened by the July 1 severance of aid to countries of first asylum in the

region by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The withdrawal of aid, to be phased out over the next few months, has effectively

locked the remainder of the Indochinese boat people into a catch-22.

With UN aid cut, the Cambodians as well as the 3,700 Vietnamese boat people left

on Galang - UNHCR placed the total number of remaining Vietnamese boat people scattered

across the region at 25,000 - had no choice but to opt for "voluntary immigration",

or to take drastic action in defying Jakarta's decree to be dispatched home.

"These are all non-refugees," said Peter van der Vaart, UNHCR's Cambodia

representative. "Resources are needed elsewhere."

Whether the Cambodians are coming back forcibly or voluntarily is a matter of debate;

it may be "half and half," according to van der Vaart.

The return of the Galang people was a "bilaterial" decision between the

two governments, with "logistical" support from UNHCR.

While it was not in UNHCR's mandate to sanction the forcible return of legitimate

refugees, it did not object to "non-refugees" - such as the Cambodians

- being forced back.

Once they arrived in Cambodia, UNHCR would make "no distinction" between

those who have volunteered to return and those who were forced to do so.

UNHCR would give all of them respective one-off allowances of $50 and $25 to each

adult and child, help them get their papers in order, pay for their travel to their

villages, and possibly grant them a food allowance for up to 400 days.

Cambodian officials could not be contacted for comment on what help the government

would give the returnees.

Meanwhile, 25 Cambodians in Malaysia are also expected to be flown home soon, before

their detention center at Sungei Besi is razed at the end of the month, according

to Malaysian Ambassaor Deva Mohammad Ridzam.

He confirmed that a five-person Cambodian government delegation flew to Kuala Lumpur

on July 4 to iron out details for their release with a task force made up of Malaysian

government and UNHCR officials.

The Cambodian team then traveled from Kuala Lumpur to Galang on July 6, said Sukanto.

"These are the last boat people," said Ridzam. "Their departure marks

the end of a 21-year saga for Vietnamese and Cambodians."

Most of the Cambodians in Indonesia or Malaysia had, on average, spent about eight

years in detention centers, officials said.

The story of how these Cambodians became boat people is tinged with bitter irony.

Relatively few Cambodians took part in the bold seaborne exodus from Vietnam in the

70s and 80s.

While the majority of Cambodian refugees were concentrated on the Thai border, fleeing

there after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion to oust the Khmer Rouge, a few joined the

tens of thousands of Vietnamese in a dangerous passage by sea to other countries

in the region.

According to van der Vaart, some of the Cambodian boat people had sought refuge from

Pol Pot's Cambodia by first settling in Vietnam, while others passed through Vietnam

in transit to the West later.

"Some of the Cambodians who sought asylum in Vietnam left because they were

also persecuted there," said van der Vaart. "They became refugees a second


"In as far as those who had found adequate protection in Vietnam, they had no

valid reasons to leave there," he added, defining a refugee as a person who

has a proven "well-founded fear of persecution."

Crammed into unseaworthy vessels, the boat people encountered all kinds of perils,

including bad weather as well as pirates who raped and murdered boat people.

For those Khmers who made it to asylum countries, they were increasingly lumped together

with Vietnamese refugees who were virtually accepted with open arms by the West,

van der Vaart said.

At the height the Cold War, and following the fall of the formerly US-backed South

Vietnam, these refugees became pawns in the geopolitical power-play between the Superpowers.

"The US led the world in offering generous terms to the boat people in the 1970s

and 1980s," said van der Vaart.

"If, in those days, you were a refugee from El Salvador or Guatemala, you were

hardly ever granted asylum in the US, but if you came from Cuba or Vietnam, it was

easy to be given asylum. In that sense, it was very much determined by political

considerations rather than persecution considerations."

However, their luck began to run out in June, 1988 when Hong Kong - and later

other Asian asylum countries - tightened immigration controls to screen out those

who were not "real" refugees.

"Asylum countries basically said they were sick and tired of this situation,"

said Hans R Beckers, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration.

"More and more, they observed, people were landing on their shores who were

not really persecuted refugees, but were people jumping the immigration queue."

"I believe those who are still in refugee camps in Southeast Asia have no reason

not to return," added Beckers, pointing out that they had been screened several

times. "This is, of course, a personal decision which no one can take away from


To van der Vaart, there is another twist to the tale of the Cambodia's boat people.

By his reading, the "majority" of them granted asylum in the West in the

early years would have failed to do so under the tighter rules brought in later.

"Hence the tenacity in which some of the remaining boat people now resist repatriation"

in the knowledge, and perhaps envy, that many before them had been granted safe haven

in the West.

"The Indochinese non-refugee costs 20 times as much to sustain than a Rwandan

refugee," he said, stressing that the funds of his organization had been drained

since 1989 through the voluntary repatriation of non-refugees from Indochina.

"Seven years later, we are now dealing with non-refugees," van der Vaart

added. "There has to be an end to this."



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