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Khao-I-Dang and the Conscience of the West

Article # : 12767 

Issue Date : 3 / 1987  1,696 Words
Author : John Bowles

       Ever since the first waves of frightened and starving Cambodians began crossing the Thai border in 1979 and shocked the conscience of the world, almost 200,000 men, women, and children have walked, crawled, or played in the orange, dusty streets of the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp.
        Situated on the sparsely wooded plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, the huge compound of bamboo and thatch houses was opened in November 1979 to provide emergency shelter for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fleeing the Vietnamese invasion of their country. Food, water, and medical services were provided by Thai and international relief organizations.
        However, Thailand announced recently that it is closing Khao-I-Dang and planning to send the last of the Khmer people back to the embattled border areas, where three Cambodian resistance groups are fighting against heavily armed Vietnamese occupation forces and their communist Cambodian allies. This amounts to a sharp shift in policy.
        On numerous occasions in the past, Bangkok had stated that its policy was not to repatriate Indochinese refugees in "unsafe areas."
        Since 1979, some 138,000 of the Khmer (Cambodians) at Khao-I-Dang have been resettled in the United States and another 20,000 in other countries. In the routine screening process, U.S. officials rejected 14,500 of the last 25,000 Khmers up for resettlement, based on suspicions that the applicants had been too close to the cruel Khmer Rouge communists who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Another 4,300 "family card holders" are still hoping to be accepted on the basis of having relatively already living in the United States. The remainder of the camp inhabitants are described as "illegals" who don't meet the criteria as refugees.
        Since the initial tidal wave of misery pouring out of Cambodia peaked in 1980, receptivity for refugees in Western countries has, unfortunately, waned. Thailand has complained repeatedly about this trend, calling on the resettlement countries to honor pledges made in 1979 to take refugees from Thai camps. The increasing strictness of the resettlement countries' immigration policies has been criticized by some as being unrealistic and "insensitive." UN High Commissioner for Refugees Poul Hartling has referred to the decline in aid as "compassion fatigue" - a gradual tiring of helping others.
        Can America do more?
        The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) may be taking its lead from the anticommunist Reagan administration in rejecting the Khmer Rouge followers, or it may have other reasons. But those with ill will toward America don't need to enter the country as refugees. International terrorists are said to have trouble-free access to U.S. soil through the "porous" southern border and the country's coastlines. And in 1982, Congress amended the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act, making it possible for known but "otherwise admissible" communists to enter America. Picking on destitute Cambodians, whether they are friends of the Khmer Rouge or not, is "too little, too late - and in the wrong place."
        Furthermore, Americans spend billions of dollars every year on legal and
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