About 20 percent of the UN caseload in Chong Khao Phlu refugee camp in Thailand have returned, without any direct reports of injuries from land mines, according to a UN official.
Five groups of about 250 families each have already returned in the 11-day-old, UN-administrated repatriation of Samlot district, Johann Siffointe, director of the UN refugees office in Battambang town, said Sunday.
Another five movements of 250 families each are expected this week, beginning Tuesday, Siffointe said.
Returnees travel by pickup truck, motorcycle and ox cart to the UN processing center in O Ta Teak village.
The original UN caseload numbered about 12,800 refugees, who Siffointe said he expects to be resettled in Samlot in a matter of six weeks.
At its peak, the camp sheltered more than 14,000 people, some of whom returned on their own following the Dec 4 defection of the Khmer Rouge.
Siffointe expressed concern that the heavy land mine presence could delay a UN food-for-work program hoped to begin once the returnees’ 40-day aid rations run out.
“We’ll see if the mine issue will permit” start-up of the food-for-work program, Siffointe said. “We are really concerned about that and will follow up in due course.”
Samlot is a former Khmer Rouge zone in Battambang province, left largely evacuated when fighting broke out between once-defected rebels and government units following July 1997’s factional fighting.
Many of the refugees are returning to villages in a strip of land about 10 km wide that runs along the border.
Aid officials have described the strip of land as being closely watched by defected Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Battambang officials have said many of the nearly 30,000 residents of Samlot district before July 1997 lived along the border for safety reasons.
Battambang’s second deputy governor, Nam Tum, on Sunday said he wasn’t worried about the amount of refugees returning to border areas.
“As usual, they love the old places, the old rice fields, the old plantations,” he said. “Otherwise, if they want to live somewhere else, they cannot.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)