On March 31, 1992, the UNHCR Reception Center in Banteay Meanchey province opened its doors, and the "Sisophon Express" began rolling soon after, bringing exiled Cambodians like these above further back into their country by rail.
FTER having repatriated hundreds of thousands of refugees over most of a decade,
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is shutting down its operations
in the north and northwest of Cambodia. By December, the UNHCR offices in Battambang
and Siem Reap will be closed and the times of massive resettlements will belong to
a bygone era.
"We in the UNHCR are always glad when we work ourselves out of business,"
a statement read by UNHCR Director for Asia and the Pacific Francois Fouinat said
at an official ceremony in Samlot on October 21.
"It signifies that a just and lasting solution has been identified for the problems
of the refugees who we have been assigned to protect, that they have been able to
return to their homes and that their reintegration is well under way."
The UNHCR has been in Cambodia since the late 1970s when Vietnamese forces chased
Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge into the jungles. Thousands of Cambodians fled the invading
troops or were led away towards Thailand by the KR.
Throughout the 1980s Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai border swelled to immense
proportions. A quarter of a million Cambodians were resettled in third countries
such as France, Australia, USA and Canada, but by the signing of the Paris Peace
Agreement in 1991, there were still more than 360,000 people left in the camps.
The main task of the UNHCR in connection with the Peace Agreement was to repatriate
and reintegrate these people - many of whom had not seen their homeland in 15 years.
On March 31, 1992, the UNHCR Reception Center in Banteay Meanchey province opened
its doors, and the "Sisophon Express" began rolling soon after, bringing
exiled Cambodians further back into their country by rail.
Fourteen months later, 362,000 refugees had been repatriated - in time for the UNTAC-controlled
election in May 1993.
But it wasn't a smooth ride all the way, and the UNHCR has repeatedly come under
criticism for not handling the integration process properly.
Today, John Farvolden, Officer-in-Charge at UNHCR's Phnom Penh office, acknowledges
that the integration process had flaws:
"We're not particularly proud of the 1992-93 integration process. But in retrospect
it is hard to say what we could have done differently. It was a huge challenge, -
enormous in size," Farvolden says.
One of the problems was that most of the refugees wanted to be resettled in the northern
or northwestern provinces. Battambang alone took over 100,000 returnees. This obviously
affected the lives of the local population and the returning refugees were not always
met with open arms. Some were discriminated against by local villagers who saw the
returnees as a threat to their own livelihood.
A lot of returnees had no traditional attachment to the north or northwest. It was
simply the last place they had been inside Cambodia after a years-long flight from
some other part of the country. They didn't know where else to go.
"Personally I also think that some of these people had seen so much fighting
and so much shelling in the past years, that they didn't really believe that the
peace would hold. And they wanted to be close to the border if the war broke out
again," Farvolden says.
Many returnees found it hard to adapt to their new life. For some 15 years they had
been fed and supported entirely by the agencies running the refugee camps. The one
half of the returnees who were under the age of 16 had practically never known a
different life than one where rice came off a relief truck and fish came out of a
Another problem was the lack of land for the returnees. Satellite photos initially
showed huge plots of unused land in the north and northwest, but upon closer inspection
it turned out that the land was either strewn with landmines, inaccessible or simply
Nevertheless, returnees soon began to move into these areas in search of land and
opportunities. Some moved around several times before they found a satisfactory spot
However, many were not allowed to stay put for very long. As the war between the
Government and the KR intensified, hundreds of thousands were again forced to flee
from their homes because of the fighting. In the following years, UNHCR strove to
monitor the new flows of internally displaced people, which included many of the
"But with such a large amount of returnees, we would have needed hundreds of
monitors to keep track of them all," Farvolden says. "Also, there comes
a time when you have to stop calling people returnees. When you have to shift from
the short-term refugee assistance that is our task to the long-term development which
is the job of the Government, other agencies and organizations."
In 1997 UNHCR was on the verge of closing down its Cambodian office when events renewed
the need for the agency's services. The factional fighting between CPP and Funcinpec
forces created a new refugee camp north of O'Smach inside Thailand. At the same time
strife broke out when former KR troops in Samlot redefected from the Government,
and fighting around Along Veng sent thousands of the last KR fleeing across the border.
Within nine months, four Cambodian refugee sites had shot up again in Thailand. The
UNHCR's last task was to repatriate 46,000 people from these camps.
Farvolden points out that it was a more manageable task than the 1992-93 repatriation.
"The refugees were generally much more resourceful and resilient. They had only
been outside the country for a relatively short period. And they knew exactly where
they came from and where they wanted to go back to," Farvolden says.
With those 46,000 people safely back home and most well on their way to full integration,
UNHCR has found that it is time to move the agency's resources elsewhere and leave
the long-term integration up to the Cambodian Government, UN agencies and development
That, however, does not mean that UNHCR is abandoning Cambodia completely. The headquarters
in Phnom Penh stays open, and for at least the next year two UNHCR monitors will
continue to visit returnee areas regularly to check up on the situation.
The continued integration of returned refugees will now be very much up to the Cambodian
Government with assistance from the NGO community.
Over the years UNHCR has cooperated and subcontracted with various organizations
and other UN agencies. These have been selected on the basis of who will stay on
and keep working in the returnee areas after UNHCR pulls out.
Farvolden hopes that these organizations will continue to work with demining, land
rights, health and educational issues and other problems still facing the returnees.
"This is part of our exit strategy," Farvolden says. "Someone else
with expertise in the field of long-term development has to take over now. But reintegration
in Cambodia is not finished yet. It takes years. Especially Oddar Meanchey province
really needs more attention. It is a new province and they are struggling with a
lot of reintegration and development issues," Farvolden says.