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Returnee NGO faces closure

Returnee NGO faces closure

THE executive director of an NGO that is the first point of contact for many Cambodians deported from the United States said yesterday that members of its board would meet this month to discuss closing the organisation because of a lack of funding.

“I’m setting up a board meeting in September,” Kloeung Aun said. “If we can’t find funding, we’ll close.”

The announcement came one day after officials said at least 10 Cambodians who had been living in the US would arrive in the Kingdom after being deported. They were among almost 50 awaiting deportation.

All the returnees are former legal permanent US residents who have served prison sentences for aggravated felonies, a classification that was expanded in 1996 to include some crimes that were previously misdemeanours.

A total of 229 Cambodian nationals have been deported from the US since a controversial bilateral repatriation agreement was signed in 2002.

Kloeung Aun said yesterday that the Returnee Integration Support Centre, an NGO based in the capital, meets all returnees at an Immigration Department facility where they are held upon arrival.

He said that the RISC could sign for the release of returnees who had no family or friends to collect them from the immigration centre, and offered them temporary accommodation and support in obtaining identification such as passports and family books.

He said the closure of the RISC would mean “great hardship” for many returnees, especially those who would not know anyone upon arriving in the Kingdom.

“I don’t know where they would go,” he said.

The US embassy in Phnom Penh and Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Monday that at least 10 returnees were expected to arrive on Tuesday.

Yesterday, however, both Koy Kuong and the US embassy said they had received no further information, and could not confirm when the returnees would arrive.

Chhuor Kimny, chief of immigration police at Phnom Penh International Airport, said yesterday that no returnees had arrived, and that an unspecified number were scheduled to arrive on Thursday.

Officials at the Immigration Department referred questions to National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith, who could not be reached for comment.

Three recent returnees said yesterday that the RISC had provided invaluable support as they struggled to adjust to life in a country that was completely foreign to them.

A 31-year-old returnee who identified himself as Veasna said he left the Kingdom when he was a year old, and that he hadn’t known anyone or had any identification documents when he arrived last December.

He stayed at the RISC for the first month after his arrival, and said he still relies heavily on the centre despite having found a place of his own.
“RISC is everything for us,” he said. “This is where I come to every day. If RISC closes, where am I gonna go?”

A 35-year-old returnee who identified himself as Sochet said he left Cambodia when he was four, and didn’t know anyone when he returned early this year. He said that as well as practical support, the RISC offers a sense of belonging.

“The [US immigration and naturalisation service] say we’re citizens of Cambodia now, but the people here don’t treat us like that; they treat us like any foreigner who comes to this country,” he said. “I come here sometimes because all the guys here I can relate to and talk to and they can help me out.”

A 26-year-old returnee who identified himself as Sam said he was deported to Cambodia about a year ago and also didn’t know anyone when he arrived.

“I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand,” he said. “I’d never even been to Cambodia. This is my first time.”

He said he had felt like an ordinary US citizen, and that deportation to Cambodia had come as a shock.

“I was living a normal, everyday US life. I went through the whole school system,” he said. “I feel like they threw me here to rot.”

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