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Don't leave the boat people to drift...

Don't leave the boat people to drift...

Chrey Thom: For the moment the situation is calm at this river town on the Cambodian

side of the border with Vietnam. Boats of all sizes cluster along the shore and the

sounds of children playing carry across the fast-moving waters.

The words "Vietnamese boat people" appear out of place here but each boat

contains an ethnic Vietnamese family with nowhere left to go.

The Vietnamese have long lived in Cambodia despite the Khmers' historical antipathy.

Their numbers grew during the French protectorate when educated Vietnamese were brought

in to fill the lower echelons of the colonial administration.

Racist persecution reduced the population in the early 1970s during the Lon Nol

regime and the Khmer Rouge period saw an almost total exodus.

After the Vietnamese invasion in Dec. 1978, they began to return. Some had long-term

roots in the country while others sought a better life.

Before Jan. 1993, estimates of the number of Vietnamese in Cambodia ran from a low

of 150,000 to the Khmer Rouge scare-figure of one million. A reasonable figure would

appear to be between 400,000 and 600,000.

The killings of Vietnamese, especially around the Tonle Sap lake, began to grow in

March and April of this year. Deliberate sectarian killings in Phnom Penh's Vietnamese

quarters soon followed.

Thousands fled. Hundreds of skilled artisans from the construction and ancillary

industries, traders and prostitutes headed for the border but, most visual of all,

were the massed convoys of fishing boats heading down river from the great lake towards

Vietnam and safety.

Up to 42,000 individuals escaped to the border between May and June. A very considerable

number crossed into Vietnam but a significant proportion, including many who knew

no other home, elected to stay moored on the Cambodian side of the frontier.

For the moment, all those on the Vietnamese side of the Bassac and Mekong rivers

are under the aegis of the IFRC, ICRC and UNHCR.

On the Cambodian side at Chrey Thom, World Food Program (WFP) is currently providing

aid to 5,092 people.

The government has placed the problem low down its list of priorities with no solution

in sight.

For the moment, the numbers on the Cambodian side of the frontier are small enough

to manage but as many as 20,000 may be attracted, say some observers, by WFP's emergency

food program.

Meanwhile, their plight is leading to health and sanitation problems. The level of

the river has dropped by around three meters in the Mekong, reducing their chances

of using the backwaters to return to the Tonle Sap.

By traveling on the main river system, they risk extortion at government check-points

and other harassment.

Time is running out in all senses. The question being asked now is whether international

aid agencies should actively intervene to fill the void left by the Cambodian government's

inaction. But, if they do not, who will?

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