Nestled among guesthouses usually reserved for backpackers seeking a cheap place to stay as they live out their Cambodian adventures, there is a refuge for those fleeing some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. From Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and North Korea, they come to this guesthouse for a roof over their heads and a sympathetic ear.
The guesthouse owner, Malik, is himself a refugee, still fearful enough that he did not want his real name divulged for this story. He has become an ad hoc counselor for asylum seekers, who are referred to his guesthouse by a humanitarian agency. He listens to their harrowing stories of escape, takes some to embassies that may be able to help, and teaches others English.
They belong to a small but unusual community of immigrants. Many left their loved ones behind in their flights from prosecution; now they are isolated from their neighbors because of differences in culture and language.
None of these refugees came to Cambodia in hopes of carving out a new life here. They were either duped into coming to this country by smugglers, or saw it as a last resort.
Because Cambodia signed a watershed UN refugee convention in 1992, the UN can protect them from deportation. But that same convention establishes Cambodia as a country of resettlement, which can make it very difficult to leave. And while these refugees may have official protection, few feel at home in this country, and many feel far from safe.
Bajat, an Iraqi refugee, has been blaming himself lately for bringing his family to Cambodia. He worked in a chemical weapons factory in Iran for about a decade before embarking on the journey that bought him to this country. The government became suspicious that factory workers were leaking information to the UN and to the media. Authorities questioned the employees, detained them, and tortured them on several occasions.
Bajat gathered up his family’s savings and drove to Jordan to stay with his brother. But Jordan was not a safe place for Bajat. There were Iraqi agents in the country who could have found him and tried to deport him and his family. After a month the whole family flew to Bangkok, where Bajat met a smuggler who told him that he could get to Western countries more easily if he went to Cambodia.
So Bajat paid the smuggler, who took the family to Phnom Penh. But as soon as they arrived, the smuggler took off with the family’s passports and money. Bajat immediately went to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) office for help.
That was a year and a half ago. Now English lessons with the lodge owner are often the only contact Bajat and his wife have with outsiders. The only time their three sons, ages 14, 13 and 7, go outdoors is when they go to their one-hour English class at a nearby school.
Other than this minimal contact with the outside world, Bajat, his wife and sons stay in their home, too scared to go outside into a society that is so different from their native Iraq. “We feel very isolated from Cambodian society,” Bajat says. “The language barrier is very difficult. It’s very bad for our kids, especially our oldest. It’s affecting him psychologically.”
Although Bajat is shielded from deportation by his refugee status, he feels Cambodia is not a safe place for him and his family. In March, his children were assaulted and robbed at gunpoint. In April, Bajat was robbed at gunpoint and hit on the head with the butt of the gun. “We want to have a good future for our children because our country has so many problems,” Bajat says. “But now going back to Iraq would be better than staying here.”
Cambodia’s most famous asylum-seekers are the Montagnards from Vietnam, about 350 of whom live in makeshift camps near the Vietnamese border in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces. But most refugee applicants come to Cambodia in a more discreet manner and live out their struggles in private.
In recent years about 30 percent have been found eligible for protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention, said David Welin, an associate protection Officer with the UNHCR. Currently the office is screening 91 people and is overseeing 41 refugees apart from the Montagnards, though that number fluctuates, said UNHCR Officer-in-Charge John Farvolden.
Although the largest number of asylum seekers are from Vietnam and China, there are also refugee applicants from Laos, Burma, the Middle East and Africa, Farvolden said.
Most trickle in, but occasionally there is a deluge. A few weeks ago, more than 250 immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries were arrested in Sihanoukville. They had paid smugglers to take them to a third country, but were caught by Cambodian authorities, who are working to deport the group back to their native lands. Sixty-five of them were voluntarily sent back home early this month, Cambodian authorities say. The remaining immigrants in that group are still being screened by UNHCR interviewers.
Malik, the guesthouse owner, left his own country after being harassed for taking part in activities showing his opposition to the Islamic fundamentalist rulers. For him, Cambodia was the easiest place to go to after Thai authorities questioned his $200 fake passport, which he had first used to travel from his home country to Egypt. He bribed police at the Cambodian-Thai border and took a taxi to Phnom Penh.
Having lived here for a few years, Malik has assimilated better than most refugees who don’t come from Asian cultures. He has a Cambodian wife, with whom he has a young child, and her family has become like his own. But Malik says he is fed up with Cambodia, tired of paying bribes and facing racist
attitudes because of his skin color.
“I feel my situation is really hopeless,” he says. “How can I keep waiting here? Going back to [my home country] would be like going back to hell, but it’s my only solution.”
In June 2000, Malik got into a scuffle with a neighboring guesthouse owner. Both men were taken to the police station, where the other guesthouse owner paid a bribe and was set free while Malik was detained. After paying a $600 bribe and spending two months in jail, he was finally freed with the help of a UN rights lawyer.
Malik says he is still harassed by police and the troubles have caused tensions between him and his wife. He tried to move to New Zealand, where he has relatives, but he has not been able to convince the New Zealand government to give permission. Because Cambodia signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is considered to be a safe place for refugees to resettle. But if Malik wants to move again, his refugee status counts for little—it is as difficult for him to emigrate as it would be for any other Cambodian.
Malik has hosted North Koreans, a Palestinian and several Iraqis in the guesthouse. Rhamadad, a refugee from Afghanistan, came to Cambodia from Thailand because an Iranian man told him Cambodia was “a nice place.” After living here for six years, he also feels he has no life in Cambodia.
“Life is zero here,” he says.
Although he is just 29, he married a middle-aged Vietnamese woman because he was desperate for companionship. But his wife left him when he couldn’t support her family.
Rhamadad bought a passport for a few hundred dollars and tried to leave the country last year, but he was arrested at the airport and thrown in jail for three months.
Nowadays, he survives by finding odd jobs to pay his $35 monthly rent. Every Friday, he goes to a mosque for noon prayer, in keeping with Muslim traditions he has practiced since he was a little boy in Afghanistan.
He came to Cambodia after spending two years in Pakistan, where he fled after the Taliban came to his area. He worked in a market in Pakistan, but police began to harass him over his fake passport, so his father sent him money to buy a plane ticket to go to Thailand.
While he was in transit at the Bangkok airport, he met the Iranian man who told him to go to Cambodia. After he arrived here, he got a letter from one of his brothers asking him to send money. “I cried for three days after I got that letter,” he says. “How can I give him money when I have nothing?”
Rhamadad takes comfort in the refugee community, befriending fellow Afghans who fled the Taliban. They are often found at a bar owned by a Afghan asylum seeker.
“I never wanted to be a refugee,” Rhamadad says. “I only became one after there was nothing else I could do. But now even being a refugee is no help. My situation is hopeless.”
(Additional reporting by Richard Sine)