Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UNHCR Tries to Be Flexible in Repatriating Border Camp Refugees

UNHCR Tries to Be Flexible in Repatriating Border Camp Refugees

UNHCR Tries to Be Flexible in Repatriating Border Camp Refugees

Tuot Yok!" The name rang through the UNHCR re-ception center for returning Cambodian

refugees. The short, wiry Cambodian collected his large family and approached the

desk where UNHCR Field Officer Dewaree Kanchanaphet was thumbing through a large

pile of dollars.

She found Tout Yok's name listed on the passenger manifest of the convoy that had

just arrived from Thailand, confirmed that he indeed had six children, and handed

him U.S. $400-equivalent to three times the annual income of the average Cambodian


If Tuot felt rich, it didn't show. He counted his money without visible emotion,

made the mark of a thumb print on the receipt, and countersigned. As he left, I realized

there was something different about him. He walked easily enough, but his feet were

small-unnaturally small. They were also made of wood. Somewhere along the line, in

his long odyssey from Cambodia to exile and now back home, Tuot had lost both his


I watched him with growing curiosity. Who was he? How had he come by such an injury-and

how was he coping? What was he going to do with so much money? How was he going to

keep it safe?

Maybe these questions should be put to UNHCR. What was the organization doing handing

out such sums to returning Cambodians, after promising them land?

The answer is: changing course. Originally, UNHCR's repatriation plan rested on two

basic assumptions: first, that every refugee family should be free to return to the

destination of their choice; and second, that they should be given two hectares of

agricultural land.

Last year, both assumptions made sense. Two thirds of the refugees came from a rural

background, and freedom of choice is one of the cardinal principles behind repatriation.

But by March 30, 1992-the day that the first convoy crossed the border-the situation

had changed. Three quarters of the camp population had registered to return to northwestern

Cambodia even though many did not originally live in that area-an area, moreover

that is heavily mined and desperately short of good agricultural land.

So it was back to the drawing board almost as soon as repatriation began. This produced

a major shift in policy. On May 20, UNHCR decided to expand to other regions of Cambodia,

besides the northwest, and also to broaden the range of options open to the refugees.

In addition to transport and a year's supply of food, refugees like Tuot can choose

land. But they will have to wait until land becomes available. Second, they can opt

for a housing kit. Third, they can choose money-U.S. $50 for each adult (over 12

years of age), U.S. $25 for each child. The fourth option is a professional tool


Finally, they can return outside the scope of the UNHCR repatriation. Such "spontaneous"

returnees are still entitled to a year's food supply if they present proof of having

been refugees at UNHCR offices across Cambodia.

There was one further important modification: instead of giving returnees carte blanche

to pick their eventual destination, priority would be given to those returning to

their original villages. The first movements have shown that relatives and friends

can help to cushion the shock of re-entry, and provide returnees with a "soft


Months into the repatriation process, the so-called "land option" is not

dead. Settlers have planted rice in rich farmland in the province of Banteay Meanchey,

and UNHCR has approved a Quick Impact Project (QIP) of U.S. $20,000 to help returnees

buy seeds and cover the cost of ploughing.

But repatriation no longer hinges on UNHCR's ability to find two hectares for each

family, and this has enabled UNHCR to accelerate the pace of repatriation, with 30,000

people a month resettled during the rainy season, 37,000 in November, and hopefully

40,000 this month.

Observers have generally been impressed by what Raoul Jennar, a respected NGO consultant,

describes as UNHCR's "pragmatism and flexibility." Diplomats breathed a

sigh of relief. All of a sudden, the goal of moving everyone back by the end of the

year seemed less daunting.

The so-called "cash option" has also prompted plenty of internal debate.

Was UNHCR failing in its duty to the refugees and "buying them off" by

handing out cash? We concluded not-that it made more sense to face facts than persist

with an unworkable plan.

But cash presented its own problems: which currency would be less disruptive to the

local economy and most beneficial to the returnees-American dollars or Cambodian

riels? After more debate, it was decided that dollars would retain their value better.

This, however, raised the prospect of refugees carrying large amounts of money around

Cambodia at a time of deteriorating security. As always, there were no easy answers.

How have the refugees responded to the change in policy? Initially, most chose option

two-a housing plot. This was not surprising. Since repatriation began on March 30,

several hundred houses have been built by returnees in the northwest, and the thriving

settlements are a visible and exciting symbol of repatriation.

But timber merchants have also found it hard to keep up with the demand for wood,

and shortages have occurred. Word of this reached the camps, making the cash option

more attractive.

Another incentive appears to have been a series of hammer blows in Site 2, the largest

camp in Thailand. On June 1, refugees staged a violent protest, closed the camp and

halted repatriation.

Coming after a storm and a fire, the demonstration was a serious blow to the camp's

morale. Many of the refugees now signing up for money apparently feel that it offers

them the fastest way home. It is now the most popular option chosen by returnees.

How will returnees spend their cash grant? More to the point, how will they save

it in isolated rural areas where there are no banks? I wondered whether Tuot would

answer frankly, or whether he would be disconcerted by the inevitable audience of

curious onlookers. I need not have worried. He spoke easily enough-and grinned when

a one-legged returnee elbowed into the interview, wanting to know whether UNHCR was

laying on something special for amputees.

Tuot is 46 years old. He was born near the village of Pha'aw, in eastern Battambang.

From 1975 to 1979, he served in the army of the Khmer Rouge, and left for the border

when the Vietnamese invaded. In May 1986 he went looking for wood near Site 8 camp

and stepped on a mine. It blew both his legs off just above the knee.

Coming home will bring some respite, but it may not be easy for a former Khmer Rouge

soldier to return to an area that is under the control of the State of Cambodia at

a time when such factional labels are still highly relevant in this troubled country.

One of the goals of UNTAC is to change this situation and prepare the country for

elections. In his own small way, Tuot could contribute. He is visible proof that

mines have little regard for Cambodia's internal frontiers and squabbling factions-and

of the desperate need for reconciliation.

But Tuot is also clearly apprehensive at the thought of carrying large sums of money

with him through the Cambodian countryside. Before we talked, his sister had just

visited the Sisophon reception center to make final arrangements for her brother

to return home to Pha'aw on an ox cart. She told Tuot that thieves had entered Pha'aw

a month ago and stolen several cows.

"I worried about that most of last night," he admitted. His best chance

for security probably lies with UNTAC's contingent of blue-bereted civilian police

who conduct 24-hour patrols in the northwest. CIVPOL, as it is known, has proved

to be a valuable partner for UNHCR.

Tuot will also be struggling against an awesome disability in a country which has

no social security, pensions, or even widespread health care. At first I assumed

this was why he had chosen cash. I was wrong. For Tuot, money offers the chance to

return to the land that UNHCR has been unable to provide.

He has no skills except farming, so he plans to use some of his money to plough his

sister's land in Pha'aw and plant rice. He's amazingly mobile for a man with artificial

legs, but he knows that he won't be able to manipulate a plough. That's where his

money will help. He can put some towards the cost of hiring a tractor (U.S. $10 per

hectare). In short, with his large family, his sister's land, his U.S. $400 grant,

and the prospect of food for a year, Tuot has a reassuring safety net. In addition,

he is still in a way taking advantage of "the land option."

So, after his long exile, Tuot returns home to find his roots, physically damaged

but also hopeful and extraordinarily resilient. UNHCR will also need some resilience

in the weeks ahead. In spite of having brought back more than 200,000 Cambodians

in eight months, the organization is constantly reminded that this is still only

a little over half of the population in the border camps, and that voter registration

for next year's election is slated to end Dec. 31.

Clearly, what UNHCR must do is remain pragmatic and respond to each new challenge,

if necessary by changing course as it did over the question of agricultural land.

There are certainly challenges ahead. The climate in Cambodia is grim, hardly conducive

to mass returns. But there is something relentless about UNTAC's gathering presence

and the determination of the international community to bring peace to this embattled


Combine this with flexibility by UNHCR and the clear desire of the refugees to come

home, and anything seems possible. Just ask Tuot.
- Iain Guest was UNHCR press spokesperson in Phnom Penh until August 1992.

This article was reprinted from Refugees magazine.


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