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U.S. Program Ending : Cambodian Refugees Concerned

Times Staff Writer

An American program of interviewing refugees seeking resettlement in the United States is drawing to a close, raising questions about the fate of several thousand Cambodians who have fled to Thailand but have been denied U.S. entry.

U.S. officials here and in Washington have denied implications in the American press that no more Cambodians will be processed as candidates for resettlement. But the situation is complex and, as always with refugees, emotional. There is some concern--disputed by the Thai government--that those rejected by the United States, as well as more recent refugees, might be forcibly repatriated to Cambodia.

The controversy centers on the Cambodians at Khao-i-Dang, a refugee camp near the Thai-Cambodian border. In a few days, American officials will complete a two-year program at Khao-i-Dang of interviewing Cambodian applicants for resettlement in the United States.

Many have been accepted. U.S. officials here say that 133,000 Cambodians have been resettled in the United States and that about 15,000 others have been approved and are in the processing pipeline.

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Still 354,000 Refugees

But 15,000 or so have been rejected--about 10% of the candidates--and the question of their fate, and that of Khao-i-Dang, is the heart of the controversy. Attention has also centered on the estimated 230,000 Cambodian refugees in border camps who have not been designated as eligible for resettlement.

In all, an estimated 354,000 Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese are living in Thailand, having fled from their Communist-ruled homelands. Over recent years, 500,000 Indochinese have left Thailand for resettlement in third countries, 340,000 of them in the United States.

The process--from crossing the border to resettlement--seems simple. The Thai government designates those eligible for resettlement and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees registers them. Then various third countries, including the United States, interview the candidates according to their national standards for acceptance.

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This third phase has been the object of the American interview program at Khao-i-Dang. U.S. officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified by name, say they have rejected applicants for two reasons: because of the applicant’s criminal behavior, or past connections with the Khmer Rouge, the Communist movement that ruled in Cambodia until driven from power by the Vietnamese invasion of December, 1978.

‘Fear of Persecution’

Under U.S. law, a candidate for resettlement as a refugee must prove “a well-founded fear of persecution” if he were to return to his homeland, a U.S. official said. But the law also bars from resettlement anyone who ordered or assisted in the persecution of others--the clause under which most of the rejected Cambodians have been found unsuitable.

Leang Ly, 43, a Cambodian, is one of the rejected applicants. In a bamboo-and-thatch hut at Khao-i-Dang this week, he shook his head sadly when asked why he had been turned down.

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He said the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service interviewer questioned his account of his flight from Cambodia, citing apparent discrepancies on family relationships. He said he was not questioned about his political background, and he denied that he had been involved with the Khmer Rouge, whose brutal regime has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. But he said he thinks the immigration officer suspected such involvement.

If one member of a family is found to have had Khmer Rouge connections, others in the family are generally denied resettlement as well, the U.S. officials said.

Family Unity Prized

“We don’t believe in breaking up families,” one of them said. “It causes more problems than it solves.”

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A refugee official, although critical of U.S. standards on acceptance, agreed, saying, “With Asians, family unity is the strength.”

The Americans insist that the end of the interview program at Khao-i-Dang does not mean the end of U.S. acceptance of Cambodians as refugees.

“There is no change in the U.S. government refugee policy,” an American official said. “There is no change in the ceiling for refugees from Indochina.”

He said the ceiling for the current fiscal year remains at 40,000, plus 10,000 Vietnamese who will enter the United States under the Orderly Departure Program, a program of normal immigration from Vietnam under U.N. auspices.

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About 27,000 to 28,000 Indochinese refugees will be accepted for resettlement this fiscal year, the official said, most of them Cambodians.

But the windup of interviews with the pool of Cambodians at Khao-i-Dang designated as eligible by the Thai government has put the spotlight on what lies ahead, and stirred the suspicions that the United States is cutting off the Cambodian refugee program.

Not so, an embassy official said, adding, “The pot has merely run dry.”

Appeals to Be Heard

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These officials point out that the United States will continue to hear appeals from those rejected at Khao-i-Dang if new evidence supporting their applications is presented.

And there are 4,300 Cambodians at the camp who have not been designated eligible by the Thai government. Both U.S. and Thai government sources indicated that they may nevertheless be approved as candidates.

The Khao-i-Dang population is estimated at 24,000. They include the rejected, about 1,500 approved and ready for further processing, the 4,300 who have not been designated as eligible, and an unknown number of illegals who have sneaked into the camp in the hope of being resettled.

U.S. officials say they will also interview on a case-by-case basis the applications of Cambodians in the border camps, which are designated evacuation centers rather than holding centers, the status accorded Khao-i-Dang. The Cambodians in the border camps almost all crossed the frontier during last winter’s offensive by Vietnamese forces.

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Those in the camps who can prove a family connection with Cambodians living in the United States, or some American connection in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, would be considered candidates for normal emigration.

Prospects Dim for Most

But with the Khao-i-Dang interviews ending, the American refugee officials will turn most of their manpower to processing Laotian and Vietnamese applicants in other camps.

There remains the question of what will happen to Khao-i-Dang and the rejected applicants once those approved for resettlement in the United States or other third countries have left.

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No official, Thai or American, would speculate on the fate of the people left behind. One refugee worker said they may be blended with the occupants of the border camps. They can also continue to press for resettlement in the United States or some other country, but for the majority the prospects look dim.

U.S. and Thai officials say unofficially that the camp will not be bulldozed into oblivion, as some critics of Thai refugee policy have predicted, and as has been done with other Thai holding centers.

Several officials suggested that the camp, if it is no longer used as a center for resettlement applicants, may become the site of an education program for Cambodian refugees.

Arthur Dewey, the deputy assistant secretary of state for refugee programs, promoted the education program while he was here on a visit in late May. Asked what kind of assistance the United States should provide the Cambodians in the border camps, Dewey said, “The real opportunities seem to be in the areas of education and training, providing opportunities for . . . secondary education and even beyond.”

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Dewey suggested that $5 million that has been approved by the Senate and a House committee for Cambodian aid be used for educational purposes. As conceived by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), the $5 million would have been funneled through the Thai government for use by the coalition government of Democratic Kampuchea, the combined non-Communist and Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces opposing the Vietnamese occupation. Solarz suggested that the funds could be used for weapons.

Thai Political Problems

The conflict between the Cambodian guerrillas and the Vietnamese and their allied government in Phnom Penh is a major factor in Thailand’s policy on the Indochinese who have crossed the border since the Communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975.

“The whole thing depends on the political situation,” a refugee official said.

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The Thai decision not to designate every Indochinese who crosses the border as eligible for resettlement turns on political problems:

--A wide-open policy, Thai officials believe, would bring a flood of people across the Thai border, increasing security problems and straining the ability of the Thais to shoulder the refugee burden, along with those of the relief agencies and the United States and other third countries that supply most of the financial support for relief.

--If the Thais were to open the gates, there is the question of political realities in the resettlement countries. In the United States, for instance, there has been political opposition to Indochinese immigration even at present levels. It is part of what refugee workers call “compassion fatigue.”

Under international norms, those designated as refugees but not accepted by third countries could remain in the country of asylum.

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--Finally, Thai and American sources speak unofficially of the effect that resettlement of the Cambodian refugees along the border would have on the resistance. The civilian population, which supports the guerrilla armies, represents what the anti-Vietnamese coalition calls “Free Cambodia.” Its disappearance would make it diplomatically difficult for Thailand and other non-Communist nations of Southeast Asia to continue to make the case that the coalition is the legitimate government of Cambodia.

‘Humane Deterrence’

The Thais, in viewing these problems, have often practiced what they call “humane deterrence,” the policy of giving Indochinese sanctuary for humanitarian reasons but keeping camp amenities spartan and refusing to designate each newcomer as a potential refugee.

The Thai goal, in the case of the neighboring Cambodians and Laotians, is to repatriate them to their homelands when conditions there allow.

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