Singapore — The smuggling and resale of United Nations relief rice has reemphasized the problems to be overcome in feeding the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees housed near the Thai border.
This week UN officials stepped up an investigation into how the rebagged rice is smuggled out of the sprawling 102,000-person Khao I-Dang refugee camp and sold in surrounding Thai villages.
The practice, as encountered by reporters visiting the camp, has raised questions concerning the camp's security system. Policing is provided both by an internal refugee force and by a Thai group known as "task force 80."
The camp is administered by the United National High Commissioner for Refugees. But the international group ultimately depends on others for security.
According to the testimony of Thai rice traders and others, the brokers come to the vicinity of the camp, where they meet refugees who have brought UN-supplied rice in small cloth parcels.
The Thai traders weigh, buy, and repack the rice. It is then shipped to markets in nearby towns such as Aranyaprathet.
Refugees who sell the rice use some of their earnings to buy items such as shoes, pens, paper, notebooks, and jewelry. These, in turn, are sold by blackmarket traders, also from such towns as Aranyaprathet.
According to reporters at the scene, some of the refugees who sell rice tell the traders they pay camp guards a 50-cent fee for safe conduct to the place where they do their dealing. The refugees, traders say, pay another 50 cents to reenter the camp.
The amount of rice involved remains unclear. At one trading point, a reporter found Thai merchants had gathered 110 bags of rice weighing about 11 metric tons in a day.
One Thai rice trader is quoted as saying she buys the rice for about 15 cents per 2.2 pounds and resells it for 19 cents.
UN authorities are believed to be discussing two possible solutions to the problem. One is to distribute two-way radios to internal refugee police. The other is to build a fence around the camp. There is much speculation that the smuggled rice is actually being bought by the UN for redistribution at Khao I- Dang.