Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - First refugees set to return as aid groups gear up

First refugees set to return as aid groups gear up

First refugees set to return as aid groups gear up

A S more Cambodians are reported to be crossing into Thailand from the fighting at

Samlot, humanitarian organizations are wrestling with what to do with some 21,000

refugees who earlier fled the disputed O'Smach area further north.

The first of those refugees - a group of about 1,800 who have agreed to leave the

Kap Choeng refugee camp in Thailand - are scheduled to return to Cambodia early next

month.

The rest, however, are expected to remain on Thai soil for some time, with the nagging

question of what to do with people who do not wish to return because of fears of

being blown up or persecuted.

One of the immediate problems for aid agencies is a lack of information on the people.

The Thai government has counted 21,500 in Kap Cheong, across from O'Smach, and a

further 3,500 are reported to be in another camp in Trat province, but the United

Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had not been allowed to conduct a complete

survey.

"UNHCR is not in a position to register them and does not know how many want

to return," said Peter Van der Vaart, chief of the UNHCR mission in Phnom Penh.

Initially, Thai authorities said that the Cambodians fleeing the fighting would have

to leave within a month, but that deadline has lapsed. A Thai proposal to establish

some kind of "safe havens" within Cambodia for the refugees has also been

dropped.

"We have made representations to the Thai government saying that if the people

have a well-founded fear of persecution, don't send them back," said Van der

Vaart. "We are concentrating our efforts on volunteers and are mainly concerned

with those who think they are at risk."

The first group of volunteers from the Kap Choeng camp is expected to pass through

Boeng Trakun, about 40km north of the border point of Poipet, and spend the night

at the Kong Va resettlement camp just north of Sisophon. "We won't establish

a relief center. It will be designed for people to stay one night," said Van

der Vaart, adding that the refugees would be given food by the Cambodian Red Cross

and the World Food Program.

As for the remaining refugees, UN agencies are settling in for the long haul. The

UN Border Relief Organization (UNBRO)- which played a key role in helping refugees

in Thailand throughout the 1980s - is now back on the frontier.

"It still has a mandate," Van der Vaart said of UNBRO. "It is a dormant

fund that still has money for a rainy day. That rainy day has come."

UNHCR, which had been due to wind up its mission in Cambodia at the end of the year,

is itself making contingency plans to extend its term.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), meanwhile, is monitoring the

situation in case of any forced repatriations by Thailand or arrests of returnees

by Cambodian authorities.

ICRC dissemination delegate Eddy Abegg said the ICRC also wanted to ensure that no-one

was returned to areas where fresh landmines had been laid or where there was still

fighting going on.

• Because of a typographical error, the article 'Back to the past as refugees flee

to Thailand' in the last Phnom Penh Post identified the former Site 2 refugee camp

as having been in both Surin province and south of Surin. The camp referred to in

Surin was called Site B, not Site 2. Site 2, another camp, was in Thailand's Prachinburi

province.

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