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Stranded without a country

Stranded without a country

VENG Yeung Ho, 56, was born in Kompang Chhnang. His parents were born - and

buried - there. But the Cambodian government is not convinced he is a

Khmer.

"I don't know what to say. I am Cambodian," he protests. "I was

born there, I have children in Phnom Penh and Kompong Chhnang."

Ho's

problem is that his ancestors were Vietnamese, though his family have lived in

Cambodia for generations.

Since fleeing Kompong Chhnang after a Khmer

Rouge massacre of Vietnamese-Khmers - including two of his children - in 1993,

he has become a country-less citizen.

He is one of 3705 such boatpeople,

at last count, living at a floating refugee village on the Basaac River at Chrey

Thom, just inside Vietnam territory.

The Cambodian government, concerned

about an influx of new Vietnamese immigrants, is preventing their return. The

Vietnam government says they can stay in that country, but provides no food aid

or resettlement assistance.

The refugees, living in more than 1200 boats

just a few hundred meters from the southern Cambodian border, want to return to

their former villages.

"I could not stay in Vietnam because I have no

family or land here," says Chreung Yeung Ng, 65. "My relatives are in

Cambodia."

"We have no land, no jobs, no food," says Thay Seung, 41, who

despite having two children killed by the KR believes Cambodia is her only

home.

"We know very well about the Khmer Rouge - they don't like us so

much. They think we are Vietnamese. Of course we look like Vietnamese but we are

really Cambodians."

In the meantime, the boatpeople wait. They survive on

regular rice and medicine supplies from United Nations agencies and Cambodian

NGOs.

It is not always enough. Ng says he knew 20 to 30 people who had

died from "fever or diarrhea" in the past two years at Chrey Thom. Sometimes the

nearest Vietnamese hospitals accepted boatpeople as patients; sometimes they did

not.

"The Vietnam government does not provide rice or medicine because

they say we come from Cambodia. We are supposed to be Cambodian citizens," he

says.

The boatpeople come from Cambodian towns such as Chhnuk Tru, on a

small lake in Kompong Chhnang which feeds into the Tonle Sap Lake.

They

fled south to Chrey Thom - encouraged, they say, by United Nations personnel who

told them they would be safe there - after Khmer Rouge massacres of Vietnamese

during the 1993 elections.

They since became one of Cambodia's, and

Vietnam's, most long-standing refugee problems and the subject of a high-level

wrangle between the two countries.

Oddly, many of the boatpeople are free

to return to Cambodia, illegally or legally. But they must leave their boats -

their homes and, as most of them fish for a living, their  workplaces -

behind.

Cambodian border police confirm their orders are to allow

boatpeople with Cambodian identity cards to cross the border, but only without

their boats.

Alternatively, the refugees can - with the payment of a

bribe or two - go ashore and cross the border on land.

Ng said he had

several times visited Phnom Penh to get money from relatives since moving to

Chrey Thom.

"It's not difficult, but I cannot take my boat. I need my

boat and everything on it - it's my house."

Those with enough money,

however, can apparently buy their boats' passage to Cambodia.

There used

to be 7000 boatpeople at Chrey Thom, some 3000 more than now, according to a

community representative. Asked where the others had gone, he smiles and says:

"Sometimes boats disappear from here and in a few days turn up on the Tonle

Sap."

United Nations agencies are spearheading moves to get the Cambodian

government to allow at least some of the boatpeople to return

legally.

The village records of 22 families - proving they had lived for

generations in Cambodia - were recently located by the UN Center for Human

Rights. The records are to be used in support of the families' bids to return to

Cambodia.

Australian judge Michael Kirby, the UN Secretary-General's

Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia - who led a delegation to

Chrey Thom on Jan 20 - said there were several hopeful signs that the situation

could be resolved.

They included the finding of the family records and a

recent visit to Chrey Thom by the Cambodian Co-Interior Ministers, Sar Kheng and

You Hockry.

Kirby said he would press the government to establish a

tribunal to investigate, on a case-by-case basis, whether the boatpeople should

be allowed to live in Cambodia.

He considered the refugees' situation a

"test" of the government's commitment to human rights, he said.

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