Sam Bath isn’t sure exactly where he’s from. All his mother told him is that he was born “somewhere near the Thai border” before the family fled Cambodia and resettled in the United States as refugees in 1986.
Now, the 37-year-old slouches in a plastic chair in the office of the Returnee Integration Support Centre in Phnom Penh, a city he had never set foot in until two US immigration agents escorted him off a commercial airliner on December 2 and handed him over to Cambodian authorities.
“My mind, my heart is over there,” he says of Fresno, California, the city he grew up in, and where all his closest relatives, including two adolescent sons, live.
After being granted asylum from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and living most of his life in the US, Sam Bath was deported to a homeland he barely knows, amidst an unprecedented immigration crackdown in the US last year.
In October, the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) reported that 396,906 individuals were removed from the US during Fiscal Year 2011 – the highest number in the agency’s history.
Sam Bath is one of 87 individuals repatriated to Cambodia, according to the US Embassy. While it’s a tiny portion of all US deportations, it is a more than fourfold increase from 2010, when only 21 people were repatriated, according to RISC. Last year marked the highest number since the US started deporting Cambodians after the Repatriation Agreement was signed in 2002.
For the last month, Sam Bath has been living in limbo at the temporary shelter operated by RISC, the only local NGO dedicated to assisting returnees. He’s unsure of what to do or where to go, and unable to make any moves.
“Right now I’m just waiting for my paperwork. I need an ID, I need my family book,” he says, referring to the Cambodian government-issued document in which individuals are registered as members of a family as proof of residence. Without the “family book” he can’t apply for ID, and without ID, he can’t buy something as simple as a SIM card, let alone apply for a job, rent a flat, or open a bank account. But like most refugees whose communities were shattered by the violence they escaped, Sam Bath has no family to speak of.
“My mum tried to look for some sisters, but she doesn’t know where they are, [or] if they’re still alive,” he says.
Since no relative could sign for his release at immigration, RISC staff “sponsored” him. Once released, they offered him shelter at their office, and are now helping him with his paperwork.
He has no idea how long it will take, but is grateful to have a roof over his head.
If not for RISC, “I don’t know where I would have gone. I’d probably be out there”, he says, pointing to the street.
The drastic surge in repatriations this year, however, has begun to strain the already meagre support system for returnees in Cambodia.
“There is much more need this year,” says Kao Sarith, senior case manager at RISC, which opened in 2002 as the Returnee Assistance Program. Its goal was to ease returnees’ transition to an unfamiliar country and culture by providing shelter, food, and orientation.
Immigration authorities notify RISC staff when a returnee is scheduled to arrive so that they can do a needs assessment. Kao Sarith says that in past years, three to six people would arrive in one month, sometimes fewer. Last month there were 12.
Sean McIntosh, a public affairs officer for the US Embassy here, is hesitant to attribute the spike in repatriations to an increase in arrests or deportations. Rather, he says, it is “a reflection of having an ICE representative in Cambodia with a permanent presence”, something which has allowed for “better processing of ICE cases” in recent years.
But advocates in the US familiar with the issue of Cambodian deportations are quick to point to a shift in enforcement strategy on the part of the Obama administration as the cause. “I think it has to do with the [2012 presidential] campaign,” says Jacqueline Dan, staff attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Centre in Los Angeles.
Dan says that amidst escalating criticism from immigrant rights groups in the US regarding heightened deportations, the Obama Administration has expressly shifted its priorities to removing individuals with criminal records, as revealed in an ICE memo leaked last February. This move aimed to appease critics while at the same time positioning the administration to look tough on immigration enforcement, she explains.
The shift has had a significant impact on deportable Cambodian refugees, says Dan. Khmer youths are more susceptible to getting into trouble with the law and falling into the category of a deportable “criminal alien”, she explains. “First you have the Khmer Rouge targeting basically anyone that they think is educated. That wipes out a huge percentage of people who might successfully adjust to life in the United States.”
On top of that, she says, most refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge did so after witnessing, and living through, atrocities. “A lot of them came to the US and were traumatised ... but were not provided services that they really needed.”
These factors, combined with the poverty most refugees faced after resettlement in low-income, racially stratified neighbourhoods, severely impacted Khmer youth, many of whom joined street gangs or became involved in criminal activity. “They grew up poor, they grew up in families that were somewhat broken and they found another community there that supported them, that protected them, where they found self-worth.
“And so that’s where, when you look at these policy shifts within the [Obama] administration, you see certain communities getting hit harder than others,” she says. APALC hasn’t seen a similar spike in deportation of, for example, Filipino or Korean undocumented immigrants, she says, adding that there are now about 2,000 Cambodians with final deportation orders in the United States.
“I got thrown into the ghetto,” says Mout Iv, a 34 year-old year old whose refugee family resettled in South Philadelphia when he was a child. “Over there, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians don’t mix.” When Mout Iv joined an Asian gang in his teens, it was as much to “fit in and be down with the homeboys”, as it was for protection.
In 1998, he was arrested for “stabbing a black guy” and served five years in prison. Mout Iv says that when he got out of prison in 2003, he was fully rehabilitated. He opened up his own barbershop. He bought two properties. He started a family. “I did everything I was supposed to do,” he says. Then, in 2010 he was he was asked to report to ICE. Instead of a regular check-in with the agency, he was detained for eight months with no warning and finally deported last May.
In Phnom Penh, Mout Iv sticks out. He wears a striped red and white polo shirt, a red Phillies baseball cap and shiny black Nikes. He still walks with that dropped-hip swagger unique to American inner cities.
“We’re not bad people,” he says of himself and fellow returnees. “We made bad choices when we were younger.”
Mout considers himself blessed, having found a job teaching two weeks after arriving thanks to a connection through his Philadelphia minister. He now teaches Kindergarteners English, and rents a small flat for US$60 a month. Though he is getting by in Phnom Penh, his family in Philadelphia is struggling.
His girlfriend, a nurse, was left to take care of their 18-month-old daughter, and is now struggling to make ends meet without his support. Though they were able to rent out the barbershop, the tenant is now two months behind, making the family fall behind on their mortgage payments. Selling off one or both of the family’s properties is not a viable option given the depressed state of the real estate market in the US.
A few weeks after arriving, Mout Iv signed up for English teaching certification classes through RISC. He took his certification exam two weeks ago, and is hoping that the certificate will allow him to get a better-paying teaching job to help support his family.
Mout Iv is an inspiring case, but a rare exception. Returnees, the majority of whom did not finish high school in the US and have few marketable skills, have a difficult time adjusting to life in Cambodia.
According to a 2008 survey conducted by researchers from the University of Washington and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, out of 105 returnees, 52 per cent were unemployed, 34 per cent had no permanent housing and 65 per cent were unable to pay for basic needs.
This is why the services that RISC provides are so crucial.
But with only two full-time staff, the organisation is scrambling to keep up. In October, its main source of funding, a grant from USAID-funded East-West Management Institute, was reduced from $54,000 to $34,000, according to Song Oem, RISC’s finance officer and acting director. The combination of increased demand and decreased funding is forcing RISC to reduce the scope of its services.
Kao Sarith says that they have begun to ask returnees to pay for their own food after two weeks. Last year the organisation was able to reimburse $80 of the cost of a family book and birth certificates; this year they can only cover $40.
The total cost of documents can run from $150 to $200, though Kao Sarith says he has heard of returnees being charged as much as $400 by local authorities.
“They think they are rich because they come from the US,” he says. “So they charge them a lot of money.”
Culture shocked and disoriented, deportees are vulnerable to extortion from the moment they land in Cambodia. Many report being extorted by Cambodian immigration authorities. Agents told Sam Bath that he would have to pay for his paperwork if he wanted to be released, so he paid $50. Not wanting to cause trouble with local authorities, he didn’t even report the extortion to RISC. Mout Iv coughed up $200 and a “very big bag of rice” to get released.
These abuses are especially the case for returnees who do not have families to help them navigate the system. But even those who do have a family, mainly in the provinces, are sometimes taken advantage of.
Kao Sarith says that extended family members often receive money on a returnee’s behalf. “When they’re cut off, and their family [in the US] stops sending money, they’re kicked out,” he says.
Most returnees who resettle in the countryside go to Battambang, and field visits are a critical component of RISC’s outreach to ensure that deportees are adjusting well. But this work, too, has been reduced recently. Whereas staff used to conduct field visits every month, this year they had to reduce them to every two months, Kao Sarith said.
An even greater challenge is meeting the needs of returnees with special needs, such as those with substance abuse or serious mental health problems. “Mental illness is very difficult,” he says. “For those with mental illnesses, even if they have family, the families don’t receive them.”
A few weeks ago, RISC staff had to deal with a mentally unstable returnee who ran back to the airport with his luggage and a blank piece of paper he claimed to be his passport, demanding to be flown to the US. RISC staff had to spend the night with him at the airport until he calmed down. Because of virtually non-existent mental health services in Cambodia, the man is now staying at the RISC office, but Kao Sarith admits that staff is ill prepared to deal with such cases.
Last year, RISC was able to provide families hosting returnees with mental illnesses $20 to cover medicine and transportation and food for medical visits, but this year they have no money left for it, says Kao Sarith.
Fundraising is an uphill battle, since most donors are hesitant to give to an organisation that works almost exclusively with individuals who have criminal pasts.
“When funders hear that returnees got deported because of criminal backgrounds, they don’t want to work with them,” he says.
Sam Bath, the recent RISC arrival still waiting for an ID to be issued, became “deportable” after being convicted for pulling out what he says was an unloaded gun during an altercation with a neighbour. He served six-and-a-half months in prison, and then, on the same day he was released, he was picked up by immigration agents without being told what was happening and taken to a detention centre in another state. He was deported five months later.
He is hopeful that he’ll be able to start a new life in Cambodia, but without any support, he is unsure of how to make that happen. Sam Bath says he is thinking of teaching English, and is hoping to take the same English certification classes Mout Iv was able to sign up for a few months ago, but these, too, are in danger of being cut.
Lamenting the lack of attention given to returnees by both governments, Sam Bath compares the situation to that of a plant that doesn’t get watered.
“You can’t take [a plant] from over there and put it here,” he explains. “When there’s no one to take care of it, it’s gonna die.”