NEARLY a fortnight after their deportation by Thai immigration authorities, Khmer Krom asylum seekers staying in Banteay Meanchey province say they are suffering from hunger and fear as they encounter the uncertainty of life in a strange country.
Since their July 2 deportation, 33 of the 56 deported have left the border, counting on friends and relatives across the country for food and shelter.
But the remaining 23 deportees, born and raised in southern Vietnam, have no family in the Kingdom and are now living in limbo at a small pagoda outside Poipet town. The deportees did not want their exact location to be published.
Several deportees told the Post Friday that the group had endured harsh living conditions since arriving in Poipet. Despite aid from a Christian charity, they said they have been forced to survive on a single meal a day, drink pond water and sleep on the floor in cramped living quarters with no mosquito nets.
"We can't leave the house and can't go to the market, let alone go to work to try and sustain ourselves. It's dangerous out there. We can't trust anyone," said deportee Nguyen Van Hai (names have been changed).
Worst of all, said Pham Van Thanh, another deportee, was the constant fear of repatriation to Vietnam, where Khmer Krom claim they face restrictions of freedom of expression and religion.
"What we are most concerned about is that Cambodian authorities do not allow us to stay here and will send us back to Vietnam," he told the Post.
"If we are sent back, we will be jailed."
The 56 Khmer Krom fled southern Vietnam for Thailand between six months and six years ago and were awaiting the results of their asylum applications when arrested as illegal immigrants by Thai police and detained at Bangkok's Immigration Detention Centre on June 12.
The Khmer Krom said they had been living in isolation from the rest of Thai society and had received no news from home prior to their arrest.
"We have absolutely no contact with our families in Vietnam. We have no idea what's happening to them now. It's likely that they're being spied on," said Vu Van Ba, another of the deportees.
Nguyen Van Hai said it had been hard to live a normal life in Thailand.
"We could not do anything there. No work, no business, and we were under surveillance at all times," he said
At the time of their deportation, the Bangkok office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was in the middle of processing their asylum applications. The deportees said they were angry the UNHCR had been unable to intervene after their arrest.
"UNHCR did not provide any assistance when we were in Bangkok," Pham Van Thanh told the Post. "When arrested by the Thai police, we called UNHCR officials in Bangkok asking for intervention, but their hands were tied."
Sara Colm, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said Sunday that the deportation might put an end to the group's attempt to seek asylum abroad.
"It's difficult for the refugee process to be completed now that they have been deported to Cambodia," she said, noting that UNHCR Cambodia will not consider the asylum claims of Khmer Krom.
She said that UNHCR operates according to Cambodian government assurances that all ethnic Khmers - including those from southern Vietnam - have the automatic right to Cambodian citizenship, making it technically impossible for them to claim refugee status while staying in the country.
Article 4 of the 1996 Nationality Law also states that any person with one Khmer parent can become a citizen.
But the difficulty facing the deportees is that the government does not seem willing to grant them the rights of citizenship enshrined in law, with one official saying they face deportation to Vietnam.
"We do not have any principle of providing these people with shelter or accommodation," said Try Narin, the governor of Poipet town. "I have asked local authorities to find them, and if we [do] we will send them back to their homeland."
UNHCR's office in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment Sunday.