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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Northwest faces new refugee crisis

Northwest faces new refugee crisis

B ATTAMBANG and Banteay Meanchey are facing a new unheralded refugee crisis which relief agencies fear will become critical with the possible on-set of dry season fighting. While the plight of 50,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who fled fighting between the Khmer Rouge and government soldiers in April was well publicized, most of the suffering since then has taken place away from the public spotlight.

Thousands of refugees who have been too afraid to move back to their homes are living in makeshift camps and a constant climate of fear has seen their numbers rise every day. The Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) now estimates the number of IDPs in the two provinces at already close to 40,000, with more fighting expected in the dry season.

The hidden crisis is best illustrated in Banteay Meanchey. Five thousand villagers fled the KR's April assault, but that figure is dwarfed by the 28,000 people now seeking refuge around the province's two main towns, Sisophon and Mongkol Borei.

Sa Roeung, principal private secretary of Doung Khem, the governor of Banteay Meanchey, said: "If this gets any worse, there might soon be no place to welcome any IDPs nor any food to feed them."

Floods are responsible for the displacement of about 7,000 people but most of the IDPs have left their homes because of fighting or the fear of it.

However, refugees also report that armed gangs of bandits, who pretend to be either KR or government soldiers, are roving around the villages and looting them, worsening the security situation.

There was much hope in Battambang last month when 20,000 people displaced during fighting in April returned to their villages in Rattanak Mondol and Sveng districts. But there are still 12,000 IDPs in the province, and Andy Pendleton, UNHCR's representative in the two provinces, fears that terror might probably drive those who have returned back to Battambang city.

Interviewed by the Post in the Wat O Prasat camp 10 km south of Sisophon town, thirty-six-year old refugee Hieng Thien described why he had fled his village of Kok Balang.

"They [the KR] were about a hundred in number. They didn't hesitate to kill a villager who refused to give them his rice and some of the wooden planks from his house for them to use as firewood or building material."

For the 40,000 IDPs who have been gathered in a dozen camps, some of them for eight months, life is quite similar to that in the Thai border camps they left behind: blue plastic sheets, malnutrition, bad sanitary conditions and overpopulation. Indeed, some of the IDPs had already spent more than ten years in those camps, the last of which was closed down last year.

Resettling the IDPs for good in new villages is thus becoming a favoured solution (see related story on Page 6 ).

With no land to cultivate, the refugees are totally dependent on external assistance. Each refugee is given a monthly food ration by the CRC and the World Food Program (WFP) of 15 kg of rice, three or four cans of sardine and sometimes 300 g of salt.

Humanitarian organizations are overwhelmed by the numbers of homeless people. In Banteay Meanchey they were able to build only three camps out of a required nine to welcome refugees. After eight months, there is still no school or hospital in the camps, despite the fact that half the population is under 15 years of age.

For example, in Wat Luong in Mongkol Borei in Banteay Meanchey province, 2700 people are concentrated in makeshift shacks within the precincts of a pagoda. The food supply is still insufficient and many suffer from malnutrition and severe vitamin deficiency: several children have beriberi and some have bleached hair.

One of the refugees told the Post : "We are reduced to searching for snails or little crabs. The ones who have cattle have to sell them." The chief of Wat Luong also complained: "Pchum Ben (the Feast for the Dead) is one of our most important celebrations and we have nothing to celebrate it , no offering to make."

Moreover, the floods of refugees often have very tense relationships with the inhabitants of the towns they go to seeking refuge. Mongkol Borei town, for example, has just 7,000 inhabitants against 8,000 refugees.

Local people accuse the refugees of being chicken thieves, and local schools sometimes refuse to accept so many new children. Some refugee families have to pay to send their children to school in the towns. Others dare not, in their destitution, send their children to school in rags.

As for the refugees who returned to their villages in Battambang's Rattanak Mondol and Sveng districts, the situation is still quite precarious.

Tes Heanh, assistant to Battambang governor Ung Samy and officer in charge of IDPs, told the Post that their villages have been abandoned for several months, the houses sacked, sometimes destroyed.

Moreover, the disused rice fields make any harvest impossible and people have often lost their cattle. Heanh added that 18 schools were burnt in the district of Rattanak Mondol alone.

But worst of all is the danger of mines. "Despite the fact that most villages in strategic fighting areas were mined, the inhabitants are eager to go back home, and do not wait for basic mine-clearing operations to be completed," Heanh said.

All aid for the IDPs is coordinated by the local authorities under the provincial governor, though there is almost no budget allocation for IDPs. In Banteay Meanchey all NGOs who work for the IDPs meet in the governor's office every week.

Thus, with the help of the UNHCR and CRC, Concern was able to build 960 shelters in Banteay Meanchey and World Vision donated plastic sheets.

The best refugee camp is Khla Kaun, 5 km north of Sisophon, with 3780 refugees, where each family has a bamboo house. Being managed by the CRC, this camp is the only one with a hospital and a humanitarian organization (the CRC) actually present within the camp.

But these better standards of living cannot prevent problems inherent in a place with such a concentration of individuals. In order to avoid frequent brawls, the CRC has had to create a cadre of five employees whose only job is to solve law and order problems in the camp.

The improvement of living conditions, although necessary, has its unfortunate side effects. Lao Mong Hai, vice-president of CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Center) which is very active in these provinces explained: "Some refugees become completely dependent on assistance. They don't want to back to their villages even if the situation there gets better. "

Some camps have distributed ration cards to IDPs to make a distinction between genuine IDPs and those who just desire free food. Roueng cites the example of Phnom Tian camp in Sisophon town, where 500 people are not considered as IDPs by relief organizations and will not receive any further help.

These villagers, former inhabitants of the border town of Poipet where they were destitute, preferred to stay in Sisophon because they can beg and receive food from the NGOs, he said.

In order to prevent refugees from becoming passive recipients of aid, WFP implements a Food For Work program in which villagers rehabilitate war-ravaged areas in return for food or seeds.

Refugees, relief workers and provincial government officials say the suffering has been met with indifference from Phnom Penh. Despite a visit to Sisophon on Sept 30 by Prime Minister Ranariddh, the problem is still not a priority for the government, they say.

After he visited two camps in Banteay Meanchey, food rations for 4,800 families were supplied by the government, but relief officials say a long-term solution to the IDP problem has to be a political one.

In fact, they say, if the IDP problem is not well-known in Phnom Penh it is mainly because of military reasons. The influx of refugees is considered by many in the provinces the result of the substandard performance of the RCAF, which is incapable of overcoming the KR problem.

For many even within the staff of the governor of Banteay Meanchey, a solution to the problem includes negotiating with the KR, an unpalatable idea in Phnom Penh. They think the King is the only possible mediator.

Counter-attacks on the KR by the RCAF is as great a source of fear for the refugees as KR attacks, and some refugees refuse to return despite having waited for such attacks for more than four months.

Some see these refugees as part of the KR game plan. Says one relief official who requested anonymity: "The KR uses refugees as a human shield."

One official in the Battambang governor's staff described at least some displacement of villagers as planned by KR agents. "Some villagers who have ties with the KR spread rumors about imminent attacks. Then they stir up fears by packing up, hoping to sway the crowd," he claimed.

The good work of the NGOs must not hide the fact that no organization, except the CRC, actually works in the camps. The chief of Wat Keo in the town of Mongkol Borei camp said: "I have received some donations in kind (from NGOs), but I never had any real contact with anybody."

Security is the main reason why NGOs are not present in these camps where the need is so huge. WFP's Oshidari criticizes the NGOs for working only in Phnom Penh and the surroundings, but he also adds that it is hard to blame them because Sisophon is often the target for KR rockets and communication lines are constantly cut off. But no camp has been subjected to any KR attacks.

Hou Chhuneng, chief of operation for the CRC in Sisophon, fearing that fighting will intensify soon, has appealed for assistance from anyone of willing to help.

Lao Mong Hai told the Post during the Pchum Ben festival: "The people are now praying for their dead, but today we have to think of all these refugees before it is too late."



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