Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - More refugees calling Cambodia home

More refugees calling Cambodia home

More refugees calling Cambodia home

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

in 1992.

"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

do so."

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,

quiet way."

The names of the refugees whose experiences are included in this article have been

changed to protect their personal safety.


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