A sad chapter in the history of Indochina’s wars ended Tuesday when the largest Cambodian refugee camp in Southeast Asia was declared officially closed.
Officials said 23,000 refugees remain at the camp, prosaically named Site 2, but are scheduled to leave at the end of April in time to return to Cambodia and take part in national elections there, which are being held May 25-27.
At one point, Site 2 housed more than 200,000 refugees and was the largest settlement of Cambodians after the capital, Phnom Penh. It was located about 40 miles north of the Thai border.
Refugees poured across the frontier into Thailand beginning in 1979 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Maoist Khmer Rouge government.
Under a peace agreement for Cambodia signed in October, 1991, nearly 340,000 refugees living in Thailand have been sent home since last March in a massive repatriation program conducted by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
But once back in Cambodia, the refugees face a decidedly uncertain future, without job prospects or even assurances of long-lasting peace. The United Nations initially had lofty plans of helping each refugee family set up a working farm or business, but when it became clear the goal was not attainable in the time allowed, it resorted to offering refugees cash payments of $50 for each adult and $25 for each child who went back.
“I know there are many difficulties ahead,” Sadako Ogata, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told some of the refugees Tuesday. “But by returning, you are casting your vote of confidence in the peace process.”