Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Cambodia and Syria: Every refugee crisis is different

Cambodia and Syria: Every refugee crisis is different

The staggering dimensions of the migrant flow into Europe prompts me to offer a note on the Cambodian refugee crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which I played a small part. I am not suggesting that what happened 35 years ago offers any answer to current challenges.

Rather, the Cambodian crisis, which was ultimately resolved, emphasises how very different and difficult the present events are from almost every angle.

In the final months of 1979 tens of thousands of Cambodians began pouring across the Thai-Cambodian border in search of food and shelter, as near famine conditions took hold in their country in the chaotic wake of the Vietnamese invasion that had ousted the Pol Pot regime. Many of those who crossed into Thailand were literally dying on their feet.

The reaction to this crisis, which involved perhaps 250,000 seeking food and safety in Thailand, was remarkable. After hard bargaining with the Thai Government, the international community, led by UNHCR, set up a series of camps to accommodate the illegal immigrants, as the Thai Government regarded them, inside Thai territory. The largest of these was Khao-I-Dang, with a population of some 90,000.

Faced with this situation, UNHCR sought answers to two broad sets of questions. First, who were the refugees, where had they come from and what was their personal experience both during and after the period of Khmer Rouge rule? Secondly, what were the refugees' hopes for the future, either to be settled overseas or to return to Cambodia? [fold]

My task, consulting for three months in the first half of 1980, was to find answers to these questions in the UNHCR-administered camps and, to a limited extent, in the unofficial border agglomerations just over the border in Cambodian territory where there were upwards of another 60,000 displaced persons.

The suffering the refugees had experienced under the Khmer Rouge was staggering. In a carefully constructed sample that tried to give due accord to the least advantaged of Cambodian society, I found that more than 40% of refugees had lost nuclear family members through execution.

Extrapolating, this suggested that the total loss of life under Pol Pot through executions, overwork and illness that might otherwise have been treated, was 1.5 million – a figure remarkably close to the now agreed figure for that period of 1.75 million.

As to their future hopes, there was a sharp divide based on educational background. Refuges with education hoped to find resettlement places overseas, while farmers and low-level urban workers thought in terms of eventual return to their homeland, but not yet.

When I returned for a second stint of two months consulting in 1981, my brief was much simpler: given that most of the camp dwellers were unlikely to be accepted overseas, under what conditions would they return? The answer was simple even if matching circumstances to their wish was not. They would return if they believed it was safe to do so.

With a relatively limited number of refugees finding resettlement overseas, it took ten long years for the bulk of the refugees remaining in the camps to return to Cambodia. It was not until the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 that a program of repatriation was finally drawn up and implemented, and even then the operation was protracted and lasted several months.

The Cambodian refugee crisis had a solution, but one that reflected a very different set of circumstances from what is occurring in Europe now. Most importantly, the majority of refugees hoped to return to their own country. What seems to mark out the current crisis is the hope of most of the migrants to move permanently to new homes.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Related Content"

You may also be interested in