40,000 Refugees to Return From Thailand in Months

Camps May Close As Tension Eases

As many as 40,000 refugees could return to Cambodia and refugee camps in Thailand could close in a matter of months as a result of the recent easing of hostilities, a top UN refugee official said Tuesday.

“We are thinking in terms of weeks and months…but preferably not too many months,” said Francois Fouinat, Asia and Pacific Director of the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refu­gees.

While the UNHCR will not force any refugees to return, Fouinat said the formation of a new coalition government and recent Khmer Rouge defections should “build confidence” among refugees to return to Cambodia.

“The reason these people left is insecurity and military activity,” Fouinat said. “We understand that these questions have now been dealt with, and peace, we hope, is going to prevail.”

The UN representative met with Prime Minister Hun Sen for an hour Monday afternoon. He said that the premier fully agrees that refugees should return, al­though no details were finalized.

“Hun Sen is very keen that Cam­bodians should find ways to sort out their own problems in their own country,” Fouinat said.

However, Fouinat acknowledged that it would take longer to reintegrate returning refugees because they may not be able to return to the land they fled to es­cape fighting in Cambodia’s northwest. Some of that land may now be mined, he said.

The UN will assist Cambodia in making sure the returnees have food and shelter, he said.

Hun Sen agreed to a meeting soon between representatives from Cambodia, Thailand and UNHCR, said Ros Kosal, private secretary to Hun Sen. “The two sides have agreed to move forward as quickly as possible,” Ros Kosal said. “The prime minister has insisted that this happen very, very soon.”

A Thai Embassy official said Tuesday that Thailand agrees to the meeting, which he called “the first step” in closing the camps.

The two countries and the UNHCR last met April 27, when Thailand pledged to send back all the refugees before the July 26 elections. The camps still shelter about 40,000 refugees who fled after fighting of July 1997.

Hun Sen asked for additional border crossings for returnees, that refugees be allowed to de­cide where they will return to—even if not necessarily their old homes—and funding assistance from the UN, Ros Kosal said.

The Thai official said additional border crossings would be considered if necessary. “We want to expedite this matter,” he said.

Fouinat also met with the co-ministers of defense, Tea Banh and Prince Sisowath Sirirath, and representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday to discuss the return of refugees in more detail.

The military has agreed to cooperate with the UNHCR, according to the Ministry of Defense. “[RCAF] will facilitate everything to help the UNHCR,” said General Lay Bun Song, international relations director at the Ministry of Defense. “We will provide security, everything we can do.” He added that the RCAF would also help repair the roads in order to speed up the process.

The UNHCR has assisted 9,000 people who have volunteered to return in the past 12 months, said Amelia Bonifacio, the director of the United Nations Border Relief Operation in Thailand.

She said the UNHCR has procedures ready for refugees to return in large numbers.

“We have the procedures in place. We have our coordination mechanisms in place at the Phnom Penh level, at the provincial level. We have something that is working already, so we’re just expanding in terms of the numbers.”

Fouinat said that the return would not take very long. “Return can be done quite quickly,” he said. “The reintegration of these people may take a bit longer because that involves having access to means of sustenance, which is probably access to land, and that is a bigger issue.”

He said that the problems of infrastructure destroyed by warfare and land mines would be addressed later. Demining organizations would be contacted when people started to move.

“Practical ways of organizing the return, that’s our next task.” said Fouinat.

The UNHCR also wanted to confirm with Cambodian officials that representatives of the organization would be able to visit refugees who had returned.

“Part of our role and why we came here is to make sure that we’re able to visit them every so often just to be assured that everything is all right,” Amelia Bonifacio said.



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