A bumpy road ahead for US deportees to Cambodia

Decades after fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian nationals convicted of crimes in the US are forced to return home.

The Pit Bull tattoo peering out from under the shirt sleeve of Kim Ho Ma doesn't particularly set him off in a crowd in his former hometown of Seattle. But in this city, it draws stares from elders in the markets and youngsters on the basketball court alike.

"At times, I feel like I stand out," says Kim Ho. The last time he was in Cambodia he was 6 and living with his family in a refugee camp.

After months of wrangling, Cambodia consented last March to receive nearly 1,500 Cambodians who have been convicted of "aggravated felonies" in the US and completed their prison sentences. Mr. Kim, convicted of manslaughter in a drive-by shooting, arrived late last year.

The deal has turned officials here and deportees into reluctant partners in an arranged marriage. None of the deportees has jobs, some are completely alone, and most have only a vague idea of contemporary Cambodian life. Kim has managed to be civil when he has been the target of rude comments and gestures. But rights groups worry that without more help reintegrating deportees may get involved in fights or other types of violence. Bill Herod, a coordinator for the Returnee Assistance Project, an organization set up after the arrival of the first batch of deportees, says he's aware of two recent cases of "vicious" clashes between locals and returnees.

"We fear that some of those people who have committed very serious crimes or are involved in organized crime might be too sophisticated for our police," says Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. "But we had a lot of pressure to accept them."

Under a 1996 US law, any foreign national convicted of a crime with a minimum penalty of one year in prison can qualify for deportation. However, a few countries - such as Laos, Vietnam, and, previously, Cambodia - do not permit repatriations from the US.

The 1996 law makes no exception for Cambodia. But for most Cambodian deportees and their parents, their last memory of their homeland is fleeing the terror of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of some 2 million people in the late 1970s.

Thai Tan was a well-paid heavy-machine operator in Seattle more than a year ago. But after attempting to visit his children in violation of a restraining order and 14 subsequent months of detention, he found himself on a plane returning to the country he and his family escaped three decades ago.

"The way back was very, very scary," he says. "You look out the window ... and think, wow, all you can see is jungle and flood. There are no high-rises. Nothing.

"My father and sister came to visit me in detention before I left. They were very surprised, upset, and sad, especially my dad. He thought that if I was sent back, I'd be tortured. I remember a lot from that time. Torture, killing, starvation. People dying everywhere."

The Cambodian government criticizes the US for relinquishing all responsibility for the deportees once they arrive in Phnom Penh - and providing $100 per deportee for "processing fees." "We wish that they could stay in the United States," Mr. Kanharith says. "They have family there, and most haven't been here since they left."

But without assistance from the US, Cambodia has done little to ensure their integration beyond contacting relatives. Rights workers criticize the deportees' prolonged detentions in a government "guesthouse" near the airport. Some accuse the government of deliberately slowing the process to protest the US refusal to give more money. They argue that the deportees should be treated as what they legally are - innocent Cambodian citizens.

Simply locking them up for weeks could have unintended consequences. "These guys go from these places to detention here and eventually when they get out, they see it as a negative experience and have a negative concept of the government," Mr. Herod says.

He's especially worried that gangs will reemerge in Cambodia as deportees cling together in their new home. "So far, these are little more than social groups. But if they feel threatened - and some do - they will become defensive."

But Herod, who has been working to find deportees training, education, jobs, and housing, says that if given the chance, most of deportees could benefit the country. They bring highly valued English skills and other qualifications as trained mechanics or electricians.

Many of the deportees sport muscled physiques, dress, and mannerisms imported from US inner cities. But according to Herod, their looks alone should not intimidate.

"A number are sensitive about their appearance, especially the tattoos," he says. "They wear long-sleeve shirts, which seems odd in the heat. They have a swagger and their haircuts set them off from other Cambodians. But they're trying to buy clothes in the markets, and they're trying to fit in."

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