Residents of Poipet face an increasingly desperate situation since the government closed the Thai border on March 5, a study last week by an NGO working in the area claims.
The survey, based on interviews March 10 and March 11 with residents of the border commune, said half of them had only enough resources to “hold on” for another week.
The staffers judged 59 percent of those they interviewed as “in a very difficult situation”—that is, “people who have used up all their savings, who can no longer borrow money or food, who have no more possessions left to sell—people who don’t know what to do anymore,” Bernard Jaspers Faijer of the international Dutch NGO ZOA Refugee Care said on Wednesday.
The NGO, which has been working with Cambodian refugees, and other displaced Cambodians, since 1975, has been in Poipet since the border opened there in 1998, leading the population to more than double.
“We know quite well the people, they know us, and we know the local authorities and the district authorities and so on,” Jaspers Faijer said. “So we can see that it is a really serious situation.”
Relying as it does on Thai-patronized casinos and cross-border trade and labor, Poipet is a transient place, a “concentration of all the provinces,” Jaspers Faijer noted.
In the survey, 46 percent of the 140 people questioned said they would return to their homelands if the situation persisted.
Jaspers Faijer guessed that as many as 10,000 of Poipet’s normal population—which fluctuates, but is estimated at around 80,000—have already left.
But of those who said they plan to return to their homelands, 86 percent would have to move in with relatives—who themselves might well be needy, the survey noted.
“[Their] relatives in many cases only have rice for a short term, and there was no work available in their homeland… which is the reason they came to Poipet in the first place,” the survey says. “Many of the people who planned to return back were also not sure if that was possible since they had not even money left to pay the taxi fare.”
Even worse off was a “group of people [that] has no place to return to, no relatives who can support them…. This group accounts for 25 percent of the population of Poipet.”
The group’s findings corroborate those of Poipet commune chief Sok Sovann, a Sam Rainsy Party member whose claims that his people are near starvation have been discounted by the ruling CPP.
Jaspers Faijer emphasized that his organization is not political and the survey intended only to describe a humanitarian crisis.
Sok Sovann said on Wednesday that with trade cut off, the people can’t turn to farming. “The soil in Poipet is not fertile, and there is no irrigation for growing rice or vegetables.”
The government said it closed the border because Thais were not allowed to cross to Cambodia and Thai border guards were shooting Cambodians.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith on Wednesday reiterated the stance that claims of suffering along the border were being hugely exaggerated by opposition politicians for political gain.
Nonetheless, O’Chrou district’s CPP Governor Sar Chamrong said the district would today distribute donated rice aid to 1,000 people.
“If people are starving, we will provide everything. That doesn’t mean we have to kneel down and beg the Thais to open the border,” he said.
He added that plenty of Cambodians outside Poipet are needy and poor.
Among the survey’s conclusions is a damning assertion that the government’s policy could completely backfire.
As the situation worsens, more and more people will try to cross the border illegally as a “last resort,” the report says. If the government’s claims about Thai soldiers targeting civilians are true, “The end result of this will be that the Thai soldiers will engage in the same activities that the PM has said is the main reason for closing the border.”
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