Cambodia: Refugee Warriors and Economics

by melody and damian and olivia

Image result for khao i dang

Since their inception, refugee camps have been viewed as places offering a safe haven for refugees waiting to be resettled far away from the dangers of their home countries. This perception of refugee camps have been conceptualized as a means of giving them legitimacy, but as Itamar Mann has stated, the reality of the camps are simply a measure of keeping people alive instead of killing them, and only providing the services needed to give refugees the minimum needed for them to survive (Mann, 18). Moreover, conditions in camps varied depending on their location and, as in the case of the Thai-Cambodian camps, were worsened by the famine stemming from the period of the Khmer Rouge.Thus, overall conditions in most camps have been kept at a minimum as a way to ensure that refugees would not try to overstay their welcome, while also trying to keep those who might take advantage of the hospitality of the host country and the UNHCR out of the camps. However, despite these attempts to keep those seen as ‘undesirable’ out of the camp’s walls, camps like those on the Thai-Cambodian border provide an interesting example of how the mere life provided to a host of refugees can also be exploited by groups on the outside.

Although the Khmer Rouge were defeated and ousted from power in 1979 and replaced by a Vietnamese-controlled communist government, the battle continued on well into the 1980s and launched a third wave of refugees fleeing from Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. Camps on the Thai-Cambodian became fertile ground for groups seeking to overthrow the Vietnamese from power to recruit into their ranks, which was further aided by Thailand, who further aided the Khmer Rouge by ensuring that they could be “fed as refugees, and furnished as warriors.” (Robinson, 26) “the border war promoted a feeling of cynicism toward refugees and the humanitarian agenda on the part of many in Thailand and Cambodia,” (Robinson ,35) and the misuse of refugee camps as resource sites for guerilla groups fed into the anti-refugee rhetoric, as it provided evidence for that refugees were actually “vile terrorists” and to not be trusted as true asylum-seekers. Refugee warriors thus aided in the construction of a narrative that saw refugees as opportunists, making it difficult for future refugees to be taken seriously.

Economics of Refugeedom: The State

When approaching the issue of economic costing of a refugee crisis, particularly in the case of Cambodian refugees from the 1970s till well into the 1990s, it is important to consider the totality of cash flow as a result of this issue. What this means is that the cost of clothing, feeding, and housing refugees, as well as the potential benefit to the host country, is the tip of a much larger regional, and at times global, investment in either stabilising the area or through financing, weapon sales, proxy wars, destabilising existent regimes for political ends. This is particularly true in the case of Cambodia where from decolonization to the Domino Theory that was used to justify anti-Communist expeditions in Asia, there was a large amount of foreign money that deepened the decades long humanitarian crisis and prolonged the conflict.  

In a 1977 House of Lords sitting in the UK, it was noted that Thai authorities received from the UN grant of 25 cents ($1.05 in 2019 USD) per each refugee admitted from their eastern neighbours. Considering that throughout the 70s and 80s over 300 000 refugees crossed the border, Thailand potentially received up to $75 000 ($316 356 in 2019 USD) as a grant for allowing the Cambodians and others to cross the border. This must be qualified that the House of Lords noted that subversive Cambodian elements were rooted out prior to admission. However, as shown in the large presence of militant groups in the border camps and cooperation between various authorities and militants, there either was not a serious attempt at preventing guerrillas from entering, or there was an attempt to offload the costs of a proxy war against Vietnam onto various international humanitarian organizations. What is also important to note is that this grant seems extremely small for the volume of refugees Thailand received and the existence of a border conflict with Vietnamese forces and militants taking advantage of a porous border.

Economics of Refugeedom: Refugees and Camps as Sovereignties

Khao-i-Dang was an interesting refugee camp as it represented for many Cambodians a possibility to emigrate, as it was directly administered by the Thai Interior Ministry and UNHCR. As a result, the camp was also free of control from the many militant groups fighting Vietnamese troops across the border. This quote from a 1987 Christian Science Monitor article highlights what Khao-i-Dang represented to the refugees: 

“The disquiet turned to alarm on Jan. 15, when Khao I Dang residents heard that 1,683 displaced persons in Site 8, one of the Khmer Rouge-run civilian camps, were rounded up by Khmer Rouge forces and trucked, in the middle of the night, to Na Trao, a Khmer Rouge military base. The base is controlled by the so-called ‘butcher of Kampuchea,’ Ta Mok, and international relief organizations have no access to it. A month later, there was no sign of what had happened to the displaced persons who were rounded up.”

Khao-i-Dang was representative not only of hope but of safety from Khmer Rouge and other guerrilla press gangs. Thus, an extensive network of “paymasters” and other individuals sprung up to traffic Cambodians into Khao-i-Dang, this widespread practice gave rise to terming these refugees as illegals. This is important to recognize that these camps amounted to miniature semi-sovereign entities, with their own borders, populations, and structures of governance or occupation. In 1987 USD (2019 USD) the per capita income of Thailand was $646 ($1454), while refugees were charged upwards of $400 ($900) for passage. However, this was no guarantee of eventual safety as the possibility of “deportation” to their camp of origin (they were sent back, but the reality of what this meant to the refugees after being trafficked is akin to deportation).

Refugee perspective / stories / agency

For Cambodian refugees, their stories are often left out of history. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent conflicts, Cambodian refugees’ experience was mostly told through the lens of relief agencies, meaning that relief agencies were in control of which stories and experiences were presented to the world. Peter Gatrell suggests that,“[d]isplacement was associated with a lengthy test of resolve. By contrast the reflections of Cambodian refugees are mostly hidden from history, except insofar as they emerge in the record of relief organizations. In particular there was no Khmer equivalent to the large Vietnamese diaspora whos extensivette transnational connections have begun to illuminate refugee experiences.” The controlled outlet for stories that relief agencies have means that the ‘correct ‘experience is told. The lives of Khmer refugees and Chinese refugees are less frequently told, creating a great loss of perspective. The diverse experiences of people in refugee camps as well as in some cases their stories as refugee warriors are not present in popular history. 

Currently, people globally are using different means in order to express their experience and give more control over the narratives that are often told of refugees. A way to project this information is through the internet. Gatrell explains, “[t]he internet has become an important means of collecting information from disparate sources and disseminating it more widely.” 

Aid agencies often used stories of refugees to showcase victims in need of their support as well as conceal the often undesirable conditions of refugee camps. By presenting their own stories, refugees are able to gain more agency of their experiences and break this narrative. 

Below are some examples of Cambodian refugees taking back their agency: 

Vannead Horn discusses his own family experience in Cambodia and reflects on the current refugee crisis

Vannead Horn: A spirit of a fighter

The story of Samneang Moul


Adelman, Howard. 1998. “Why Refugee Warriors Are Threats”. Journal of Conflict Studies 18 (1).

Hansard, “Cambodian Refugees in Thailand” House of Lords Sitting (12-Dec, 1977). Series 5, Vol. 387.

Mann, Itamar. Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Robinson, C. “Report. Refugee Warriors at the Thai-Cambodian Border.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 19, no. 1 (January 2000): 23–37.

Weaver, Mary Anne. “Cambodians in Limbo. Refugees on Thai-Cambodian Border Face New Status as `Displaced Persons’.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 1987.

8 thoughts on “Cambodia: Refugee Warriors and Economics

  1. I found the characterization of refugee camps as exploitative sites and as sovereignties particularly interesting. Those who find themselves within refugee camps are already vulnerable and vilifying them further, such as the “vile terrorists” accusation that you mention, only adds to the stigmatization of refugees as threats. With regard to the sovereignty aspect, I had never thought about refugee camps as sovereign spaces. The way you describe them as having “their own borders, populations, and structures of governance or occupation” made me think about a point you make in the previous paragraph about keeping those who are ‘undesirable’ out of the camps and how this is similar to the idea of imagined versus unimagined communities when it comes to membership in a state. How do we determine who is desirable and who is undesirable when it comes to admission in a refugee camp? How did the UNHCR determine admissibility in the case of the Cambodian refugees? Also, did the camps receive any additional funding besides the $0.25/refugee from the UN? Was there any economic activity within the camps – for example, the Cox Bazaar district in Bangladesh which houses Rohingya refugees is and has been self-sufficient in that refugees run makeshift marketplaces and business in order to make a living – was there anything like this in the Thai-Cambodian camps?


    1. First off yes, the camps received more than the Thailand government’s 25 cent stipend. Which I tried to stress being such a minimal number kind of spurred other ways to manage the refugee camps.

      So UNBRO an organization created directly in response the Thai border situation (it’s been defunct since 2001) had in 1987 budget of 37 million – which was noted to be an increase over last year to deal with the expectation of an additional 15 000+ refugees that year (from the 1986 year total of 250 000).

      As far as I am aware criteria was if you were able to make it through the border via the UN provided border crossings or not. I will take a closer look at my sources and see if there was additional criteria or not.


    2. Also one other response I wanted to give is that Khao-i-Dang and other camps existed for 14 years from 1979 to 1993 housing thousands of people and multiple aid agencies from food provision to education to clinics. These camps definitely functioned economically whether through bartering or the use of Thai currency for “better” services.


  2. I found it very interesting to read about your blog on the camps and how you incorporated Mann into your blog post when you mention that Mann argues that in reality the camps simply represent a means of keeping refugees alive instead of killing them. It reminded me of the paradigm on freedom vs. survival that we discussed in Mann where Mann distinguishes between human rights as survival and human rights as freedom. I also think your description of how the misuse of refugee camps by guerilla groups led refugees to be seen as terrorists is something that has parallels among other refugee groups, who have struggled because the label of terrorism was unfortunately placed on them.

    It was also interesting to read the viewpoint you share about the cost of the camps, which can be seen as an investment in stabilizing the region. I was also surprised by the amount of funding given to Thai authorities at the time for taking in Cambodian refugees (25 cents per refugee at the time).

    Did you come across any information about how refugees who were repatriated to Cambodia were represented within Cambodia itself, or how those who remained in Cambodia saw the refugees who tried to leave?


    1. As I replied to another comment in 1987 UNBRO funding was at $37 million. However we need to be aware that in the first half of the 80s some 21 UN overseen camps were reorganized into 11 camps sending people back and forth as a result of Vietnamese offensives.

      Now Thailand was heavily critical as the industrialised nation’s supporting UNBRO such as Australia and others only accepted less than 1000 refugees each for relocation (about 6000 more or less in total out of 250k-300k). So Thailand was as much as using the camps to fight a proxy war I’m Cambodia was massively frustrated still being “stuck” with the refugees.


  3. Vannead Horn’s story in the article you included was powerful, especially when he ended off saying: ““You don’t have to share with me, I’m just asking you to accept me. When we are here, we have to ask people who live here just to accept us.” I think this ties in well with your arguments on the economics of refugeedom, specifically where refugees are able to build and operate entire sovereign communities in camps that in turn, contribute to the Thailand economy. Refugees are not here to take from existing resources but rather seek opportunities to give back to their host country. It also adds nuance to the problem you brought up in earlier presentations – of how Cambodian refugees were being seen as ‘economic migrants’ rather than refugees fleeing violent conflict. How do you see the contributions of refugees in these camps as adding value to their existence in Thailand? Does the Thai Interior Ministry and UNHCR recognize their efforts in their respective camp?

    Also to the point on aid organizations portrayal of refugee stories – were you able to find any examples of how UNHCR or other aid organizations perpetuated a specific image of the Cambodian refugee (akin to Thi Bui’s note on how Vietnamese refugees were categorized into three categories by popular media and how this took away from the unique perspective of individual stories)? And how did this affect the diverse Cambodian peoples?


    1. The portrayal of refugees varies. From what I have found, during the fall of the khmer rouge and the invading vietnam forces, aid agencies often used the stories of refugees as victims. This makes sense because that was the truth, while people were still fleeing and as refugee camps were just being created, refugees needed support.

      However, after the fall of the khmer rouge and the growth of more stability in Cambodia, the portrayal of refugees in some cases stayed the same. More than 20 years later, Cambodian people are still being portrayed as helpless. This affects refugees because it does not allow for the experiences of Cambodians who do not fit this stereotype to receive support, such as internally displaced people.

      I found articles by the ICRC that suggest that Cambodians still need large support from NGOS, 20 years later. In these articles, the Cambodian people as still shown as helpless victims, that are reliant on the support of the ICRC. Although NGOs do provide necessary assistance, it does not need to be shown through the portrayal of victims. By limiting these people to the one category of victim, it becomes dehumanizing.
      Although these articles are not specific to refugees in camps, they detail the ICRC work long after camps were closed and cambodians returned to Cambodia.

      This article by the Diplomat suggests that the amount of NGOs still in Cambodia from the Khmer rouge is not because they are simply saving the Cambodian people but because they are making money.


    2. Olivia answered this question but I wanted to give some more information from what I found via assessing economics, political stakes, and international/legal side of things:

      I will try to answer some of your questions, they were outside of the specifics of what I was focusing my research on but from my research UNHCR and the Thai Interior Ministry were not really concerned with the growing economies in the refugee camps and how they impact local economies, perhaps the sources exist in Thai somewhere, but I was not able to find much giving the impression of very matter of fact approach to understanding these camps. With continual relocation problems i.e. 6 of the big countries guaranteeing help for UNBRO and the Cambodian mission, accepted less than a 1000 refugees each by 1987 (according to a Christian Science Monitor article from that year). I am extrapolating from this that in part with ensuring the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces (and by extent no longer have the Thai border with its refugees and guerrillas a military target) repatriating the refugees was always a main priority. It really did not seem like there was a real commitment to resettlement but rather a two birds with one stone situation: Get rid of Vietnamese influence and we get rid of the Cambodians.

      If I am not mistaken during this time Thailand was dealing with around a million refugees in total from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma (now Myanmar). So the fact that refugees were kept in these camps for as long as a decade in some cases is indicative that the solution was to “liberate” Cambodia and the years lost in the interim living in camps was an acceptable cost.

      So I wanted to take this time to clarify what I meant with refugee-warriors:

      “not merely a passive group of dependent refugees but represent highly conscious refugee communities with a political leadership structure and armed sections engaged in warfare for a political objective, be it to recapture the homeland, change the regime, or secure a separate state…. What., makes refugee-warrior communities a special problem for our time is, first, the existence of a highly developed international refugee regime that can sustain large-scale civilian populations in exile for years, and, second, the dominant ideology of democratic nationalism which makes a civilian refugee population a necessary adjunct for the warriors.” (Escape From Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World page 275 and 277).

      This book if I am not mistaken was published in 1989 so it coincides as a very contemporary opinion of Cambodian refugeedom, and it was a survey of multiple refugee related situations in the world at the time. I want to redirect your attention to when we discussed chapter 2 of Mann wherein we explored the linkages of nationalism with Jewish refugees and the formation of Israel. In effect refugee-warrior communities were sustained and financed through their global allies whether sides of a Cold War or regional rivals. But I want to make the distinction from the quote above: the majority of Cambodians were most likely unwilling participant in the war against the Vietnamese. They were either kidnapped and press ganged into service of the guerrilla factions or ended up fighting for financial and other rewards necessary to survive or perhaps even emigrate somewhere safer. There were of course those that wholly believed in the missions of the Khmer Rouge and other groups but, unlike these contemporary authors, it is unfair to attribute it to refugee groups as a whole or even debatable if its more than a sizeable minority.


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