Land still a problem for returnees
CHAMKAR SAMRONG-Sin Hai watched recently as a new village of houses for refugees
returning from Thailand was erected across the road from his family's shack in Chamkar
Samrong, not far from Battambang city.
"There is no organization to help me but my house is very bad," Sin Hai
said, as he watched the newcomers busily hammering together the wooden frames of
their houses with materials supplied by the United Nations.
Sin Hai himself fled to Thailand in 1979 after Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer
Rouge. But three years later-fearing for his family's safety in the refugee camp-he
repatriated himself to his home province of Battambang.
"The people returning from the border now are luckier than me," he said.
"They have a new house and get food and fish. For us, life is difficult. We
have nothing to eat; sometimes not even enough rice for ba baw [rice porridge]."
While Sin Hai may look with envy at his new neighbors, Chamkar Samrong is no four-star
hotel. Laid out in narrow rows along four muddy roads, the simple thatch houses have
been constructed less than two meters apart-causing sanitation problems and giving
the settlement the look of a miniature Site 2, the largest refugee camp in Thailand.
The people of Chamkar Samrong-among the first to return to Cambodia after the repatriation
program began last March-arrived with the expectation that the United Nations would
identify plots of land for them to farm.
Today, eight months later, most are still waiting for their land.
"It will be a problem for most of these people when the [U.N.] rice allocation
runs out next year," said Seng Vannly, chief of Chamkar Samrong village. "There's
agricultural land available, but it's far from here-about 30 kilometers-and there
are a lot of mines in between."
As the U.N.'s ambitious undertaking to resettle some 370,000 Cambodian refugees from
Thailand has progressed, the U.N. has had to adapt its program to the realities of
According to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Spokeswoman Annick Roulet,
UNHCR launched the repatriation program under several wrong assumptions-that sufficient
land was available for each family to receive two hectares, that the majority of
the refugees wanted to support themselves by farming, and that people did not have
family to return to.
Initial land surveys based on satellite imagery failed to detect land that was mined
or otherwise unusable, giving UNHCR an inflated picture of the amount available for
"Some of the land we were originally told was available is no longer available,"
said UNHCR Program Officer Darlene Tymo, who is based in Battambang. "We'd have
a piece of paper guaranteeing UNHCR 500 hectares of land but by the time we got to
some areas, other factions had taken the land. There was all sorts of political maneuvering."
In May UNHCR began to offer cash or specialized tool kits to the returnees instead
of land, and encouraged people to rejoin relatives in their home provinces.
Realizing they could face a long wait if they opt for land, 80 percent of the returnees
are now choosing the cash option-$50 per adult and $25 for each child under 12.
"The cash option is a sure thing, unlike land," Tymo said. "The problem
with the land option is it ties people down. Some people were allocated land in places
where they didn't necessarily want to live.
"People are becoming increasingly anxious to come back because of security problems
in the camps," she added.
Many of the refugees are going on to join relatives, adding their cash grant to the
family coffers. "They make better use of the little we give them by sharing
resources with families, and psychologically they get more support," Roulet
In another shift in direction, UNHCR no longer resettles people in clustered settlements
like Chamkar Samrong, which have the potential to turn into refugee ghettos or mini-Site
"Now that we're encouraging people to go to their province of origin, people
are scattered," Tymo said. "There's less impact than dumping people in
But some relief workers say the cash option is a short-sighted solution which will
only delay the emergence of severe social problems down the line. Blending the returnees
in with the current population makes monitoring of health and security problems much
more difficult, they say.
"The UNHCR program. . .provides little more than transport, cash and food for
the majority of returnees," said Joan Healy, a staff person with the Overseas
Service Bureau in Battam-bang. "Given the Cambodians' extraordinary recent history
of survival, it may be that the assistance is provided in precisely the areas in
which they could survive unaided."
On Nov. 29 UNHCR proudly announced that it had repatriated more than 200,000
people-surpassing expectations at the halfway point. Three of the seven Thai border
camps have now been closed down-Sok Sann, Site K, and O'Trao-with Site B slated to
close on Dec. 14.
Assessing the U.S. $116 million program, UNHCR Director Sergio Viera de Mello said
the program has been a logistical success and that he is optimistic that all the
refugees will be home by March-well in time for next May's elections.
For those that don't get back in time to make the Dec. 31 voter registration deadline,
De Mello said there are a couple of options: UNTAC could extend the registration
deadline or transport people temporarily from Thailand to points just inside the
Cambodian border to register.
"Things have gone fairly well in terms of transportation," he said. "The
main problem has been land, and we hope to launch a new drive now that the dry season
raises the possibility of a better allocation."
One of the greatest successes, De Mello said, was that there had not been a single
vehicular accident to date in moving 200,000 people back to Cambodia.
"Bearing in mind the infrastructure and the rainy season, that's a miracle,"
he said. "All the gloomy pessimistic predictions that were made before the operation
started never materialized."
Among those predictions was that after being provided with food, medical care, and
chlorinated water for the last 12 years, the refugees would be walking into minefields
and dying in large numbers from malaria or gastrointestinal problems.
UNHCR says that it knows of only one returnee that has stepped on a mine-contrasted
with 127 Kurdish refugees who stepped on mines in the first month of repatriation
While UNHCR does not have statistics on malaria and gastrointestinal problems among
the repatriated population, there's no doubt that numbers of returnees have died
from health problems not found in the camps.
At a resettlement site in Khum Da Mueun in Battambang, for example, seven children
and one adult died within a six-week period this fall of fever and convulsions, according
to Terry Parnell of the International Catholic Migration Committee. "This is
definitely the worst camp I've seen in terms of malnutrition," Parnell added.
Despite De Mello's rosy appraisal of the program, some relief workers and human rights
activists say that UNHCR's preoccupation with numbers and a tight timeline-the necessity
to get people home in time for the elections-has overridden other, more humanitarian
concerns, such as whether people are exercising free choice in how they return and
how they will support themselves after U.N. assistance runs out.
The human rights group, Asia Watch, says UNHCR's rush to get people home has "forced
compromises in the original plans and constant revisions in the information given
This undermines faith in the United Nations and bolsters alternative repatriation
plans promoted by the factions, Asia Watch stated in a report issued in September.
With scant chance at this time of receiving land when they return, relief workers
say refugees become susceptible to pressure to return with the political factions
operating their camps, who may appear to have more to offer than the U.N.
The Paris accords mandate that refugees be offered freedom of choice as to where
they resettle in Cambodia to prevent them from being forced to return to areas where
they can be used as political chattel by the factions.
"The residents of Khmer Rouge camps are very vulnerable," said a U.N. official
in Aranyaprathet, Thailand. "The Khmer Rouge areas have good land. If the U.N.
cannot come through with land, people are tempted go to Khmer Rouge zones. I don't
think politics matters to them-their immediate concern is where to get farmland and
To date UNHCR has repatriated 16,000 refugees to zones controlled by the Khmer People's
National Liberation Front and 500 to zones controlled by Prince Ranariddh's faction,
FUNCIN-PEC. UNHCR hopes to start resettling people to areas controlled by the Khmer
Rouge by late December, provided that the United Nations can be guaranteed free access
to the returnees once resettled.
A number of refugees-several thousand perhaps, estimates De Mello-have spontaneously
returned on their own to Khmer Rouge zones. And the Khmer Rouge have proven themselves
not above forced repatriations.
Indeed, only a month before the U.N. repatriation began, the Khmer Rouge moved 400
people from Site K camp into Anlong Veng, an area under their control in northern
Despite the challenges to both the returnees and the U.N. in moving hundreds of thousands
of people within a relatively short time frame, it is clear that the refugees' spirit
of survival has helped many cope with harsh new living conditions in Cambodia.
"I've watched them sitting in their final destination on their pile of wood,
just hating it and regretting coming," said UNHCR Field Representative Greg
Fillinger. "But then finally someone gets to work. One house goes up, the next
day another. Then things get rolling and 30 go up in a day."
In early May, the Post interviewed 22-year-old Ek Sereyvuth, a returnee from Site
2, as he began building his house on a dusty plain in the Omal subdistrict of Battambang.
Ek had opted for the land option, but at the time didn't know when he would obtain
a rice plot. He hoped to get work as a teacher in town-an hour and a half walk away-but
also wasn't sure if that would happen.
Four months later the Post met Ek as he stood in front of his house, now complete.
A half dozen fish lay drying on a straw mat next to a flower and vegetable garden
he had planted.
He'd landed a job in the village as an English teacher, and was using his earnings
to supplement the fish he caught and the vegetables he grew.
While his life is more austere than Site 2-which had video parlors, bustling markets,
and classes in everything from archeology to computer science-Ek is not interested
in moving to a city.
"This is better than when I lived in Site 2," he said. "It is a free
way to find a good job and make a life in Cambodia. My standard of living is higher
than Site 2."