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Cambodia's patchy refugee record

  • 24 June 2014

Cambodia is used to receiving large numbers of people. In 1992, 250,000 people returned from refugee camps in Thailand. It took over a year. In the last week trucks have ferried up to 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers back to their home provinces. They feared that the military regime in Thailand would use force against them.

Those returning will now join the many Cambodians living in poverty and trying to survive. And if Australia has its way, they will be joined by asylum seekers sent there by the Australian Government which has refused to consider their claims. Like other refugees they will face formidable obstacles to building a life in Thailand.

Cambodia signed up to the United Nations Convention of the Status of Refugees in 1992 when it was under United Nations administration. Since then about 5000 people have applied for asylum in Cambodia.

They have come from the same broad range of countries from which people have sought protection in Australia on the grounds of persecution. Initially UNHCR adjudged the claims for refugee status. Jesuit Refugee Service helped people prepare their claims and offered social assistance.

In 2009 Cambodia enacted its own laws concerning refugees. Asylum seekers have to register with the Refugee Office, which then makes decisions about protection and hears any appeals. Before their case is decided they are given temporary permission to stay in Cambodia. They may live freely in the community but are not allowed to work. If they are found to be refugees they are given a prakas that allows them to stay legally in Cambodia. Those found not to be refugees must return to their own countries.

The situation of people who are found to be refugees continues to be very precarious. The prakas is not accepted as a proof of identity by most employers, businesses and banks. In practice a resident card is required. But so far no refugee has been given one. Without their resident card they cannot apply for citizenship. So they have little chance of building a new life for themselves and for their children. What support they may need for their daily living will come from such agencies as UNHCR and Jesuit Refugee Service.

It is little wonder that more than half the people who have been found to be refugees since 1995 have sought and found resettlement in other nations. Few have remained in Cambodia.

The sense of insecurity of those seeking to remain in