TEARS, a mix of joy and fear, streamed down some faces, while others beamed with
Twenty-four newly repatriated Cambodians gathered their few belongings from a plane
at Pochentong Airport July 23, and climbed into Red Cross trucks bound for the provinces
they abandoned so long ago in hopes of reaching "a better place".
"I am happy to be home, but also very sad because they will not let me go to
Australia where my father is," said Ly Houy Lien, who has spent the last seven
years with her sister and brother at Sungei Besi Transit Refugee Camp in Malaysia.
More than 300 Cambodians left Indonesia and Malaysia over the past two weeks as the
countries emptied the refugee camps that have been their homes for as many as eight
years. The arrival of the Sungei Besi group marks the beginning of the end of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repatriation effort in Cambodia.
"It was the last large group," UNHCR representative Peter van der Vaart
said. "I think by the end of the year we should have 99.9 percent [repatriated]."
The Sungei Besi returnees and 277 others from Galang Island in Indonesia did not
qualify for refugee status and passage to a third country. Although most had no work
and no money in the camps, they stuck it out for the slim chance that Indonesia,
Australia or the United States would someday agree to take them in.
Governments in the region now view the political and economic situation in Cambodia
and Vietnam as stabilized, so they are shutting down their camps. Faced with the
choice of repatriation with assistance or involuntary deportation, most Cambodians
in the camps decided it was time to return home.
"Before we wanted to find a new life in Australia," Ly Houy Thanh said.
"But the United Nations say we must go because the camp in Malaysia is nearly
UNHCR offered cash of between $25 and $100, and rice and other food for voluntary
The deal at Galang was enough to inspire 107 Cambodians to return home. The rest
refused to go until the Indonesian authorities made it clear they would be leaving
anyway. Then the other 170 decided they might as well take the money.
Chhay Sok Nay returned to her home in Sihanoukville on the boat from Galang with
her husband and 5-year-old child. The couple sold everything six years ago to leave
Cambodia. After paying six grams of gold for passage on a boat to Australia, they
were caught by the Indonesian authorities and detained in the camp.
Although the Indonesian soldiers at the camp were abusive, and the only real work
they did was on their small garden, Sok Nay said her family stayed because they wanted
"to find a good future" in the United States or Australia.
She said life in Cambodia was hard in 1990, and many decided it was worth the risk
to flee the country. But after seeing all the new buildings in Sihanoukville and
talking with her friends and family, she regrets leaving.
Sok Nay's family now faces starting a new life in Cambodia. They are staying with
nine relatives in a one-bedroom apartment until they can find their own home. Her
son is in Cambodia for the first time in his life. "I'm happy to be back because
I miss my family, but I worry about the future," she said. "How do I find
a job? Where will I live?"
Peth Ny also did not want to return to Cambodia, but said the Indonesian immigration
police tricked her and other non-refugees by saying they were being moved to another
Peth Ny carries with her the biography of her Vietnamese husband, Ly Phuoc Dai, who
sent the neatly typed document to New South Wales, Australia, in 1991 with the hope
of gaining refugee status for his family.
The biography said that Phuoc Dai worked as a mechanic for the US Navy in South Vietnam
in 1966 and then as an engineer for the US Army from 1967 to 1974. After the South
fell, he spent five years in prison for collaborating with the Americans, and in
1982, he immigrated to Cambodia.
Still fearing persecution from the Vietnamese-installed State of Cambodia government,
Phuoc Dai tried to escape by boat to Australia with his family in 1990. They were
separated before boarding, and only his wife and six children were on the boat when
it left harbor.
Peth Ny said she and the children were caught and sent to Galang, but her husband
left on another boat a year later and made it to Australia. After six years of trying
to convince the authorities to let her and the children join him, she is back in
Cambodia. "I have no hope of ever seeing him again," Peth Ny sobbed.
Twelve Cambodians refused to leave Galang camp. They bolted as the boats were being
loaded, and in the confusion, a couple was separated from their four children.
The children arrived safely in Sihanoukville, where Jesuit Refugee Services took
them in. Now they are in Phnom Penh awaiting the return of their parents, who have
since been rounded up by the Indonesian authorities.
"One of them is with UNHCR in Indonesia, and the other 11 are in the camp,"
Indonesian Defense Attaché Col. Yukdayana said. "We asked them to be
voluntary refugees. If they agree... my government will send them home soon."