For the world's estimated 12 million refugees, life can he a cruel passage. That is especially true for the 265,000 Cambodians who fled war and famine in their homeland and now languish in border camps inside Thailand. The Thai government will not take them in, fearing ethnic conflict. And Western countries, having absorbed hundreds of thousands of Indochinese refugees during the 1970s, appear to have lost interest in them. Periodic shelling from inside Cambodia is a constant danger. Maclean’s correspondent Ben Barber visited one camp, known as Site II. His report:
For Wan Serey, a 26-year-old Cambodian refugee living in a sweltering border camp in Thailand, hope is wrapped up in a handful of family photographs sent by her sister,
Wan Kheng Sieng, in Canada. The photos show a group of happy children in snowsuits perched on the hood of a new Honda. In the background stands a red brick factory beside a river. Wan had hoped that her sister would help her immigrate to Canada. But Thailand, trying to discourage Cambodians from using their country as a springboard to a new life in the West, has prohibited the 159,000 residents of Site II from applying for resettlement in another country.
Hut: Now, while her sister works as a sewing machine operator in the Toronto suburb of Downsview, Wan spends her days in a bamboo and plastic hut, nursing a sick daughter and facing her eighth year in refugee camps. “We need medicine and food,” said Wan, rocking three-month-old Maitrai in a cloth swing. “My brotherin-law said he’d get the whole family out as soon as he emigrated to Canada. It’s been two years.”
Wan’s sister and her family are among the 91,000 Indochinese refu-
gees who have settled in Canada since 1975, when more than a million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians—spurred by oppression, civil war and famine—began to flee their homelands. Neighboring Thailand allowed the refugees to cross its borders but herded them into guarded
camps until they could be resettled by the United States, Canada and other countries. Most of them have been accepted abroad. But 367,000 Indochinese remain behind, and a baby boom in the camps increases the number by five per cent a year. Between 250 and 500 more Cambodian refugees arrive each month. Only those in camps run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are allowed to apply for resettlement abroad, and of these only about 30,000 received permission this year.
Those in other camps could be trapped indefinitely—Wan and her family among them.
The hut she shares with her mother, daughter and husband, Savy Huy, 27, is like thousands of others in the camp: a flimsy thatched roof, bamboo walls, one
bed, a small pile of clothing and some cooking pots on a dirt floor. When Savy returned from classes, where he is studying to become an electrician, a visitor asked if the family owned a radio. He laughed. There is no radio, no electricity, no mattress. Everything the family owns would fit in a couple of shopping bags. “I’m not tired of living here,” said Wan stoically. “Only I’m afraid about the shelling.” On May 29 Vietnamese gunners bombarded the crowded border camp for the second time this year, killing six people and wounding 19.
Ordeal: Wan’s ordeal began in 1979, when Vietnamese troops overthrew Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot and a famine struck Cambodia at the same time. The family fled to the border, where relief organizations were supplying food. Later, Wan’s sister moved deeper inside Thailand to the Khao I Dang camp, where refugees could be interviewed for resettlement. But Wan remained at
the border, waiting for another sister to arrive from Cambodia. The sister never arrived, and it is now too late. Khao I Dang was closed at the end of 1986.
In October, 1985, Wan’s sister and her family arrived in Canada. Together with her husband, two children (a son, Caun, 4, and a daughter, Kaohlala, 2) a family friend and her 16-year-old brother, Kheng, she lives in a cockroach-infested three-bedroom apartment in Downsview. Her husband, Khoun Chy, works at an auto parts
plant in Newmarket, north of Toronto. Wan Kheng Sieng said that she writes to Wan Serey in Cambodia once a month but added that she holds little hope of bringing her to Canada and has made no formal application to do so. She said that she finds Canada strange and different—but far better than the refugee camp she left behind. “In the camp it was a hard life,” she said. “Canada is a free country.”
Conditions in the camps are indeed harsh. Site lí, where Wan lives, was created in March, 1985, after Vietnamese soldiers destroyed a series of border settlements controlled by anti-Communist Cambodian guerrillas. Now Thailand’s third-largest city, it is ringed by barbed wire and mines and guarded by Thai paramilitary forces. The Cambodians are in effect prisoners. They are not permitted to travel to Bangkok or the nearby Thai city of Aranyaprathet. Officially, they are not even classified as refugees, a category that would at least bring them the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Instead, Thailand calls them “displaced persons.” Said Alain Theault, second secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok: “Unless Thai government policy changes, they’re stuck there.”
Fear: There are periodic epidemics of diarrhea, pneumonia, dengue fever and typhoid. But the major problems for the residents are psychological, largely a result of overcrowding. “They know a life of fear, uncertainty and confinement,” says Wayne Cartwright, an assistant field co-ordinator for the United Nations Border Relief Operation. In July, Site II recorded seven suicides, more than in any previous month. “People are pressed against each other,” said Cartwright. “There is tension, domestic quarrels, anxiety and stress.”
Many residents say that they worry most about their children. The Cambodians, an estimated two to four million of whom perished under the Pol Pot regime, now have a high birthrate. But some of the children have body sores, thin hair and other obvious medical problems. “The food is not enough,” says Khieu Socheat, 31, who has two children, aged 5 and 3. He has been a refugee since he left his village in Cambodia 17 years ago during Khmer Rouge attacks.
Relief workers among the refugees often find the work intensely frustrating. While they struggle to make life bearable, they can do nothing to end the suffering. “I’d hate to think that these people will be forgotten. It’s up to the politicians now,” said Cartwright. In the meantime, Wan Serey and thousands of others wait—and hope—for help from foreign shores.-^?
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