Caught in a Wretched Limbo in Southeast Africa

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, January 20, 1987

The world’s attention span for disasters is usually not of much longer duration than the headlines that generated the sympathetic interest in the first place.

Cambodia is one of those major disasters that has just about fallen from public view.

In truth, the small Southeast Asian nation was always an afterthought for all the great powers, which have been waging war there in one form or another — through surrogate armies — since 1970. Vietnam was the priority, Cambodia the country that was pulled into its wake.

And, now, we have another demonstration of the Cambodians as a forgotten people. Thailand has decided to close down the refugee camp that represented, for Cambodians who had escaped their country’s misery and turmoil, a last hope of resettlement abroad.

It isn’t that the camp, called Khao I Dang, is empty. There are still 26,000 Cambodian refugees in it. But Thailand has decided that it has waited long enough for western nations to accept them and that it can no longer bear the burden of having a large, long-term refugee population on its soil.

“So many have only promised and have taken no action,” said Prasong Soonsiri, the senior Thai official who made the announcement recently that Khao I Dang would soon be shut down.

Unless something happens to alter this decision, the 26,000 people in this camp not far from the border with Cambodia, including many infants born there, will lose their legal status as refugees and become “displaced persons” — vulnerable pawns once again.

Initially, these people will be moved to camps even closer to the border that are administered not by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees but by the resistance groups that have been waging guerrilla war against the Vietnamese army and the client government it installed in Cambodia in 1979.

The new arrivals will join another 250,000 Cambodians who are already classified as “displaced persons.” These are people who have fled into Thailand in the last couple of years to escape the stepped-up fighting. (In addition to these Cambodians-without-a-country, there are perhaps 100,000 similarly displaced Laotians and a small number of Vietnamese.)

The rose-colored notion behind the denial of refugee status is that these victims of the Indochina war can be returned to their nations of origin when conditions permit. That would require the restoration of something approaching normalcy in Cambodia. And that, in turn, would require all three great powers — China, the Soviet Union and the United States — to agree to make Cambodia a priority, something they have never done before.

So these hundreds of thousands of people will likely remain in wretched limbo for years to come, maybe decades.

The people of Khao I Dang were the last large group to have special status, protection from the “displaced” label. This was because these Cambodians, or at least most of them, had escaped into Thailand prior to August, 1984 — a deadline set by the Thai government, after which no one could be a legal refugee.

Of the 26,000 in Khao I Dang, about 16,000 are legal refugees. There is an in-between group of some 6,000 who were allowed in and given ration cards but did not qualify for full refugee status. And then there are about 4,000 who are listed as having slipped into the camp illegally.

What is masked by these cold bureaucratic labels is the fact that many of these people have relatives in the United States, France and other countries — family members who escaped to Thailand before them and achieved resettlement when the regulations were more relaxed — and therefore have legitimate claims to get out of the camps and rejoin them now. Legitimate, that is, unless you determine a person’s right to freedom by the date of his escape from oppression.

No one has precise figures, but responsible relief officials estimate that perhaps 30,000 of the Cambodians in Khao I Dang and other camps qualify, through family connections and other rational criteria, for resettlement.

But the countries that once accepted these refugees with some grace have now grown pinched in their attitudes, as have the Thais. The rules have been tightened. Technicalities are now cited. Family ties are no longer enough.

The United States has accepted more refugees from Indochina than any other nation. Not only is this an acknowledgement that we share responsibility for what happened there but, more positively, it affirms our tradition of offering shelter to troubled peoples from other lands. Yet now, our immigration officials are closing doors on the Cambodians.

More than 100,000 Cambodian have found a haven here since their country fell to the communists in 1975. Now another wave of Cambodian victims is asking for help. It’s a chance to give succor to people who have certainly suffered more than their share.

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