Mine-free land scarcer than first thought
PHNOM PENH (AP)-Despite the risks, many Cambodian refugees in Thailand are opting
to return home with limited U.N. cash grants instead of waiting for mine-free farmland
to become available, U.N. officials say.
Refugees who do not have job skills or relatives to support them will find it difficult
surviving for long on the grants, said Iain Guest, the outgoing spokesman for the
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The grants are U.S. $50 for each adult and U.S. $25 for each child 12 and under.
Consumer prices in Phnom Penh are rising at a rate of more than 100 percent a year,
U.N. experts say.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we started to see some fairly unsettling statistics
if people are using up their grant in three months and it's meant to last them a
year," Guest said in an interview on Aug. 10.
He suspected refugees were taking the risk out of eagerness to leave the camps, where
some have languished for more than a decade.
"People want to get out desperately and they think the cash grant will give
them a fast track to Cambodia," Guest said. "They're probably right."
So far, however, none of the refugees who received cash grants-first made available
on May 20-have reported difficulties to U.N. officials, Guest's replacement Annick
The UNHCR began offering the cash option to the 350,000 refugees still in camps in
Thailand after realizing that mine-free farmland was scarcer than first thought,
The agency had already provided two hectares (4.94 acres) of farmland per family,
along with a housing and agricultural kit, to 25,000 refugees, Guest said.
He said more than 39,000 of the about 55,000 repatriated between May 20 and July
31-about 70 percent-have opted for cash instead of other types of repatriation assistance.
Some of the greatest risks are for families of widows with children who won't have
a breadwinner when the grant runs out, Guest said.
But there is no danger of starvation because the UNHCR is giving all returning refugees
food for 400 days, regardless of which repatriation option they choose.
Besides farmland and the cash grant, the other options refugees can choose from are
a plot of land just big enough for a house and a housing and agricultural kit, a
job-if they are hired-with UNTAC, and returning to Cambodia on their own with food
Only 130 refugees have been recruited for U.N. jobs, Guest said.