What Returnees Should Know…

Updated Nov 1, 2011 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

These questions have been answered by a small group of returnees recently deported to Cambodia. One young man has been here nearly 3 years while another one arrived one month ago. The Khmer Exiled Americans (KEAs) who have generously put this document together have come together as a community to help each other out so that each can survive and have a fighting chance in Cambodia. Each of them have selected a couple questions to answer.

For more information or to make contact us through the form to the right.

1. What are practical things a potential 'deportee' or family members can prepare in anticipation of deportation?

  1. Work as hard as you can to save up money because the little bit of money you do save up will go a long way in Cambodia. For example, if you have $1000 or more you can use that money to start up a simple business for yourself (in Cambodia), and you don’t have to depend on your family to send you money. Or use the money to rent a place until you find a job. However don’t actually carry that money on you when you arrive. Try to travel with very minimum money. If you do bring money, hide it well (in your underwear or something). The money you saved will need to be wired or sent by a relative or trusted friend once you are free.
  2. Put a lot of clothes to the side so, you don’t have to spend money to buy clothes here in Cambodia. You get a 25 lb. packing box to put everything in or an equivalent luggage.
  3. You should try to buy a phone and laptop so you can stay connected to people. A basic phone is $35 + $3 SIM Card + $1-$5 to add minutes. A laptop ranges from $100 used (but may not be reliable) to $400 for a new one.
  4. Get all your contacts into a small phone book or notebook (including emails) so, you don’t have to run around when the time comes.
  5. Put money away for your transportation needs here in Cambodia. You will need to find a way to get around easily (moto taxi, tuk tuk, bus from province to province) A used bicycle can cost between $25-$40. The price of a used motorcycle can range from $600-$1000.
  6. You will need to get a Cambodian ID card. This will cost $150-$200 to get the actual ID however you will need double or triple this amount for all the running around. Most of us go out to the provinces to get this done because we do not have the proper records or birth documents. You must basically have proof of your birth in Cambodia (birth certificate). If you don’t then you will need to get your name added to a “family book” in some village. This is where a trusted or connected relative comes in handy. Your relative will have to go to a chief of the village to get added to the family book. Once this is done, you will need to approach the town’s chief of police and that’s when you start to fill out more paperwork or just work directly with that officer to complete the paperwork.  It will take a very long time to get this and is a tiring process but don’t give up. Without an ID, you can’t purchase a phone number (SIM card mobile device), employment, bank accounts, traffic violations. For some of us it took 1.5 years and others it took 1 month.

2. How realistic is it to believe someone can avoid deportation?

After being detain in prison by ICE for two years I was released. A year later after I started to live life again on the outside, one day immigration came and ambushed me at my work place and said they are here to deport me. Then ICE detained me again and after 4 months of being locked up they released me to my family. After a few years on the outside, I started to get my life back together. Then immigration came and picked me up again. So now here I am in Cambodia.

3. How can we communicate with our loved ones when ICE keeps moving them around?

Family members are always surprised when you tell them that you’re not even in the same state no more. When I move from prison to prison I would just call my family right when I have the privilege to call home and that’s how my family find out its through me.

4. What happens during the flight over for a deportee? Are they handcuffed for the whole trip? Is there food/water? Can you talk with one another?

If you are on commercial flight which will be more likely. Thai Air Way then you are not hand cuffed and every thing will be provided for you during the flight to Cambodia. All the foods will be paid for by the ICE. And yes, you can talk with each other if you choose to talk.

5. Is it a commercial charter or a different airline?

More likely you will be flying over on a commercial charter which will be Thai Air Way. You will be sitting next to one of the ICE officer but, you are free to talk, sleep, or watch movies.

6. What is the process like from the time you are held by Khmer authorities until you are free?

Well once you are released from ICE’s custody then you are detained by the Cambodian immigration law officers. They will ask you how bad do you want to be released (hinting for a bribe) and if your offer is kind then he will release you, but if not then they use scare tactics that they will hold you in a room that is equivalent to a cell for a few weeks.

What happen with me was that I was able to call my family from the states the night before I was put on the plane. My family from the states called my younger brother’s in-laws and told them to meet me at the airport on the day of my arrival. My in-laws somehow knew to find me at the immigration’s office across from the airport in Phnom Penh. But the Cambodian officers wouldn’t release me. They clearly wanted money. I arrived in Cambodia around 9am with 2 marshals escorting me and I was the only deportee. They did not cuff me during the whole travel. I noticed that the Cambodian captain was wearing cologne so I asked him what cologne he was using and he said Chanel, but its not the real thing. I said if he releases me I will come back in 2 weeks with the real Chanel cologne. So I was released. Oh I forgot to mention within the time that you are in the custody of Cambodian officers R.I.S.P (Returnee Integration Support Center – http://www.risccambodia.org/) stops by to say hello but that’s all.

7. What is the most important advice you can offer a family member in the US?

That it’s not easy for a deportee. A deportee faces many obstacle and go through severe depression. Most deportees don’t have a high education I mean bachelor and masters. Most of us don’t have degrees so it is very difficult to find a job here. You say ok you know English and that should be a plus right. No, we are actually just another person amongst millions who know English. The job market is very small and difficult to tap into. You will need connections to get in the door or know someone who knows someone. The job will go to people underqualified with connections rather than the qualified or overqualified “nobody”.  And to be honest, none of us are really qualified because we are not educated with a bachelor or masters.

8. What can the person expect to experience in the first 24 hours of being in Cambodia?

Weird. You have this sense of feeling of disorientation and displacement. You look around and everything catches your attention. You smile but on the inside you feel like you are hiding something. A different language and somehow you wished that you took the time to learn it from your parents. Lost cause you don’t even know the name of the street you are on. And you feel dumb cause you don’t know how to phone home.

9. How about in the first 48 hours?

Sometimes you wish when you wake up you would be in the states with your real family but after waking up several times and it is true you are in Cambodia. You feel like it’s a one way tunnel cause there is no going back.

10. What is the first week like in Cambodia?

My first week is tuff but I had my share of fun but its not all that fun when money is only going out and not coming in. I was forced to cut my hair and get baptized at the temple. They bought me a razor for me to shave. Well here it is this is how your family here want you presented but its not how you yourself want to be represented.

11. How about the first year?

You thought you where shocked when you first arrive. For me it didn’t really hit me until I spent a year here and that’s when the waves of depression starts kicking in. you will think to yourself and say where should I live and will I ever find a job. Many will face the decision on whether to live in the countryside or the city. some could afford the city others cant so the country is the only other option.

12. Does the US government and US Embassy help the reintegration process?

No. They offer nothing. No money. No resources. We wish the US Government would do the humane thing and at least facilitate a re-integration process or help you with a little bit of startup money. Instead the US immigration officers hands you over and doesn’t even look back – not even a goodbye wave!

13. When in Cambodia, should a deportee blend and assimilate or be honest about their status?

Well there are no right or wrong way to go about it, its all about if you can live with yourself hiding who you really are, and some people could live with that, and that’s fine. But to be honest once you state that you are a deportee you are in a vulnerable position. Cambodian people are not too understanding when it comes to being a deportee. Many think we were “returned” because we were “bad people”. They don’t understand how complicated the situation is.