The first group of Cambodian boat people to return voluntarily from Australia flew
back to their impoverished, war-battered country Dec. 26, many after spending three
years in detention.
Relatives greeted the group of 17 returnees in emotional scenes of reunion at Phnom
The 17 agreed to serve a "cooling off" period of one year in Cambodia before
reapplying for permanent resettlement in Australia.
"We've had the first arrival of the Cambodian boat people who've been held in
detention now, some for three years, some for two, some for one, depending when they
arrived in boats." Australian Ambassador John Hollo-way said.
"None of them qualified for refugee status," he said, adding that 250 Cambodians
remained in Australian immigration detention centres.
Holloway said 55 detainees had volunteered for Canberra's Special Assistance Programme
and he was hopeful the remaining boat people would accept the package.
Australian officials said most of the Cambodians held in detention were comparatively
wealthy and fled their homeland to escape the Vietnamese-installed communist government
of Hun Sen.
Individual returnees received a cash grant of U.S. $125 on leaving and would be given
a further U.S. $20 per month for the 12 months spent in Cambodia, Australian immigration
"Quite frankly, they're all intending to return to Australia," one senior
Som Chan Vouthy, 31, who escaped from the southern port of Sihanoukville in 1991,
said he thought all of the remaining detainees would join the programme.
"I think the others will come back," he said. He said he had joined the
assistance programme because "Australian made a good law."
Asked if he intended returning to Australia, Vouthy said initially he "wasn't
sure" but later admitted he had already organized a sponsor.
In a meeting with Holloway, Ranariddh said he welcomed the return of the boat people
and promised no harm would come to them.
"Their rebellion in leaving their country might have been caused by the previous
regime but the present regime wasn't the sort of regime you would want to run away
from," Holloway quoted Ranariddh as saying.
Holloway dismissed claims that Canberra was trying to keep the issue out of the public
eye by repatriating the first group of boat people during the Christmas break, when
most Australians were on holiday.
"We were held up a bit by ensuring they would be welcomed black in Cambodia
and I needed the clearance from the government and I only obtained that a couple
of days ago," Holloway said.
"Cambodia doesn't think about Christmas. They are a non-Christian government,"
he said. -Reuters