W hen Maki, his wife and two kids left Baghdad in November 1994, fleeing across the
Iraqi border to Jordan, little did he know that he and his family would end up in
Phnom Penh three months later, living life in limbo, and eking out an existence from
day to day with no idea what tomorrow would bring.
"If I go back to Iraq they would cut my hand off," explains Maki, adding
that he would also get 15 years in jail, have his forehead branded for life to indicate
he was a criminal and maybe even have one of his ears cut off.
And all this, so he says, for the crime of illegally importing materials to run a
When he left home after bribing his way out of jail, Maki's plan was to try and get
to Sweden which has a substantial expatriate Iraqi community, many of whom escaped
their homeland with similar fears of persecution.
"I sold some things and ran away to Jordan," says Maki.
In Amman he met some "smugglers" who helped him get tickets to Bangkok
and false Swedish passports so that, from Thailand, he and his family could fly on
"When we tried to leave Bangkok the Thais turned us back," he says.
Managing to find a way to Malaysia, he was arrested in Kuala Lumpur and put in jail
for two days.
He says the Malaysian government confiscated his plane tickets to Europe and gave
him and his family free tickets to Phnom Penh, where they have languished ever since.
Maki's road to Phnom Penh is not unique nor without some reason.
As Cambodia is the only country in the region which has signed the UN's 1951 Convention
Relating to the Status of Refugees, people like Maki are not treated here as "illegal
immigrants" as they are in neighboring Thailand and Malaysia.
Hence, if people like Maki find themselves stuck in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and they
can muster together the cash, the local authorities will let them catch a one-way
flight to Cambodia.
For the time being the Phnom Penh office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) is handling Maki's case.
Normally, this would be done by the Ministry of Interior, but in the absence of an
established office with trained staff and adequate resources, the government has
agreed to let UNHCR handle the responsibility of dealing with refugees.
UNHCR, for its part, is providing training to ministry staff to help the Immigration
Department get up to speed.
After a preliminary interview, Maki was initially given a "To Whom It May Concern"
letter which says that he is under the protection of UNHCR and that his case is under
He was also given a small stipend to cover basic living expenses.
After several months, Maki was accorded refugee status and the process then began
to see if he could be resettled in a third country or returned "in safety and
dignity" to Iraq.
A third possibility is that, barring the ability to proceed with the first two options,
Maki and his family remain in Cambodia.
UNHCR's Walter Hoffman says that they're dealing with about 20 cases at present,
including several Africans, some Middle Easterners - like Maki - and a few Chinese.
Hoffman notes that the Cambodian government is understandably concerned about being
flooded with refugees but he denies that this could become a problem.
"This is still not an attractive asylum country," says Hoffman.
"The UNHCR is not worried. There are few job opportunities here, the country
is still developing, there are security problems and language problems."
Hoffman also notes that the Cambodian government "should be proud of their human
rights record in this area" especially since so many other countries have balked
at signing the '51 Convention.
He adds his hope that, since so many of those - like King Sihanouk, Prince Ranariddh,
Ieng Mouly and Son Sann - were once refugees themselves and have inked their names
to Cambodia's accession to the '51 Convention back in September 1992, perhaps Cambodia
will remain sympathetic to the plight of the Makis of the world.
In Maki's case, that continued sympathy may be crucial to his very survival, especially
since his desire to go to Sweden may not come about.
On Oct. 14 the BBC reported that there are moves afoot among conservative segments
of the Swedish government to repeal a liberal refugee policy which has been in place
for many years and that, overall, Sweden is "cracking down on refugees."