Refugees From Cambodia Strain Vietnam's Resources

Hanoi asks for UN aid, but agency says funds are short

FOR the first time, Vietnamese authorities have formally admitted that 40,000 Cambodian refugees are living inside Vietnam and that they need financial assistance from the United Nations.

The vast majority of the refugees are ethnic Vietnamese who fled persecution and ethnic violence in Cambodia prior to that country's May elections.

The Vietnamese government sealed off the border area to foreign reporters in April, but is now allowing select visits.

Many of the ethnic Vietnamese apparently don't plan to return to Cambodia. Vietnam has not established refugee camps, trying instead to integrate them into existing villages. But Vietnamese authorities say they are having difficulty providing enough land and housing.

Danh Van Ninh, vice chairman of the People's Committee for Tay Ninh Province,estimates that about one-third of the refugees are self-supporting, but two-thirds need temporary or permanent assistance. The UN has certain responsibilities in the region, he says.

"First, we would like the UN in Cambodia to provide ethnic Vietnamese safe conditions so they can live and work there," he says. "Second, we'd like the UN to help us with funds for the people who left Cambodia because our province is rather poor."

Santiago Romero, deputy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New York, said in a telephone interview that the UN does not have much money for such projects.

"The Vietnamese government is doing a good job in receiving the refugees," he says, praising the decision not to create refugee camps. "That way [refugees] don't become victimized."

Mr. Romero confirmed that about 40,000 refugees are living in Vietnam and that "most don't want to go back" to Cambodia.

The UN has been cooperating with settlement efforts and providing small amounts of money to Vietnam, according to a UN source who asked not to be identified. "Whether Vietnam gets more money depends on how serious the refugee problem becomes," he says. Vietnamese authorities say they need financial assistance quickly because many of the refugees are starting to settle permanently.

Nguyen Thi Lien was born in Cambodia but crossed the border and came here hurriedly with her family in December. "I was afraid because we didn't know what would happen with the election," says Ms. Lien, referring to the UN-supervised elections held in Cambodia in May. "We thought maybe Vietnamese people in Cambodia would be forced to leave."

Other refugees say they fled Cambodia in April when fighting broke out between the Vietnamese-backed government of Hun Sen and Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Tran Thi Thi and her husband fled during that period. Both are ethnic Vietnamese. "I was afraid of being killed by Pol Pot," she says referring to the former Khmer Rouge leader who is blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians when he ruled the country.

Do Tan Lam, another ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia, says he also feared the nighttime rocket and machine gun attacks. Asked if he plans to return home, he replied, "I will stay here in Vietnam. All my friends will, too."

Ethnic Vietnamese have been forced to flee Cambodia before. In 1972, the US-backed government of Lon Nol killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese in an effort to deflect Cambodians' attention from its dictatorial rule. After the Vietnamese invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1978, the Khmer Rouge attacked ethnic Vietnamese, claiming many were Vietnamese soldiers.

Since the May election, ethnic Vietnamese feel very insecure about their status in Cambodia because citizens voted to oust the Vietnamese-installed regime.

Local leader Ninh denies that the refugee problem stems from Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. "Our troops withdrew fully in 1989," he says. He blames the Khmer Rouge, the UN, and Cambodian authorities for the insecurity of the Vietnamese refugees.

Ninh says the sudden influx of refugees caught the Vietnamese government by surprise. Vietnam doesn't have the financial resources to house 40,000 additional people, according to officials, yet the government feels responsible for them.

All the refugees interviewed say that, at least for the moment, they plan to stay in Vietnam, fearing instability in Cambodia. "My family plans to stay here," says Mrs. Thi. "Some of my friends told me they wanted to return to Cambodia, but the situation is very difficult right now."

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