In a calm, matter-of-fact way, Dia describes his unexpected arrival in Cambodia the
day after New Year's 2007.
The impetus to move started in 2001 in Mogadishu, Somalia, when local warlord militia
dragged his father from their home and shot him. Dia, then 12, tried to stop them,
but someone wacked him across the face with the butt of a gun, badly breaking his
nose. Six years later, Islamic rebels shot his brother and burned the family's recording
studio to the ground.
"I ran away when I saw them kill my brother," he said quietly, his dark
eyes alert above his still-crooked nose. "That was when my mother decided I
had to go out of the country."
Dia's mother gave the family savings to a businessman to get her son to Europe. The
two travelled to Kenya and Sudan, on to Bangkok, and arrived in Cambodia, where the
trip ended last January 2.
"I had never even heard of Cambodia," Dia said. "The man stole my
bags and left me with nothing - the clothes I was wearing and $9."
Dia has joined the 295 refugees and asylum seekers on record at the end of 2006,
with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Phnom Penh.
In recent years as the Kingdom's neighbours, such as Thailand and Malaysia, have
tightened their entry requirements and imposed harsh penalties on illegal immigrants,
Cambodia has become the region's haven for refugees. Comparatively lax visa requirements
and humane treatment of refugees means that the nation is now playing host to some
of the world's most vulnerable.
"The purpose of the convention on refugees is not to resettle but to provide
safety," said Thamrongsak Meechubot, UNHCR country representative. "People
can't stay in their own country, so they leave and seek asylum elsewhere."
For refugees like Dia, there are three recognized solutions, said Meechubot. First,
they can go back to their own country when it is safe for them to do so. Second,
they can integrate locally. Third, if neither of the first two options are viable,
they can be resettled in a third country.
"It is not safe to go back to Somalia now," said Dia, who wants to go to
Canada. "They have accepted me but now I am waiting."
In the middle of the interview with the Post on October 2, Dia received a call telling
him Canada had approved his asylum application, Overjoyed, he said he will never
forget UNHCR for helping him.
"It will be better in Canada than in Cambodia, there I can study and work. I
promised my father I would study. I have to find my mother and my younger brothers
and sisters - I think they are on the Somali/Kenyan border," he pauses, rubbing
his scarred nose self-consciously. "I will fix it later if I can but I want
to help my mother first, when I was leaving she was crying - I must help her."
But for other UNHCR-supported refugees in Cambodia, being resettled in a third country
is a distant dream.
"If you're considered high risk - an unaccompanied minor, a family with young
children - [UNHCR] will resettle you," said a representative from the Jesuit
Relief Services (JRS), an organisation that works with UNHCR providing services to
refugees. "If not, you have to settle in here."
Settling in has proved impossible for Mr Luong and Pastor Au, two Vietnamese refugees
who have lived in Cambodia for 15 and three years, respectively. UNHCR has granted
both refugee status but both said they live in constant fear of their lives. "I
don't feel safe here. Even during the day, I lock my doors," said Pastor Au,
formerly a lecturer at a university in southern Vietnam until his decision to convert
to Christianity brought him into conflict with the Vietnamese authorities. In 2004
he was arrested in Vietnam, but escaped prison and fled to Cambodia where, after
five months on the streets, he was granted refugee status in January 2005.
"The Vietnamese and Chinese refugees are never safe here," he said. "They
know they could be kidnapped and taken back at any time. I think UNHCR should try
and get more refugees to third countries."
"There are thousands of Vietnamese spies here," he said. "UNHCR thinks
as there are one million Vietnamese here that it is easy to integrate, but the Vietnamese
secret agents kidnap us."
In 1975, Luong was a captain in an ARVN unit that worked with US Special Forces.
After the war ended in 1975 he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. After
15 years in shackles that left big scars on his legs, he escaped and fled to Cambodia
"UNHCR have helped me as I have had a series of operations; both legs have been
operated on four times. I have been a refugee for 17 years and I am still scared
they will come and get me. I don't know why UNHCR won't resettle me."
Au said the Vietnamese government hates having Vietnamese dissidents flee to Cambodia
and sends agents to hunt them down. "If we stay out after 6pm we are at risk
of being kidnapped," he said.
A representative from JRS confirmed that there is risk of "neighbouring countries
swiping them [political or religious refugees] back."
The recent high profile case of the alleged abduction of monk Tim Sakhorn seems evidence
that abductions do happen. But when UNHCR wrote to the government to demand an official
explanation of what had happened to Sakhorn, the government denied any wrongdoing.
"They said he had chosen to return to Vietnam," said Meechubot. "This
is the government version and if anyone has any evidence to disprove they should
Soon after Sakhorn's alleged abduction, Au, the pastor, began receiving warnings
from Vietnamese immigrants and refugees that he was an abduction target because he
- like Sakhorn - helps new political and religious refugees from Vietnam to adapt
to life in Cambodia.
"Now, I sleep in a different place every night," said Au. "At first,
my faith helped me to deal with the fear, but now it doesn't help so much. I am always
afraid, I live in fear."
For Yla Lhay, a Burmese refugee who has been in Cambodia for a year, the problem
is not so much a fear of abduction, but frustration. The democracy activist fled
Burma in 1996 after being threatened with arrest for participating in a student uprising.
He lived in Thailand until last year when Thai authorities refused to give him a
new visa. He crossed over to Cambodia, obtained UNHCR refugee status, and began studying.
"If I go back to Thailand I can reduce my loneliness and depression but it is
difficult to get a chance to be educated," he said. "I would rather be
in a Thai refugee camp with my people than on my own in Cambodia. But I don't have
a passport - if I go back I have to cross the border illegally so there is a 50 to
70 percent chance I will be arrested."
He has applied for resettlement in a third country. He hopes to return eventually
to Burma but in the meantime believes resettlement in the West would allow him to
advocate for democracy in his homeland.
"I have the right to stay here, but I don't have the right to do anything -
I can't speak, I can't have freedom of expression. UNHCR tell me not to speak as
it will create problems for me and for UNHCR. I don't want to live forever in a secret,
The names of the refugees whose experiences are included in this article have been
changed to protect their personal safety.