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One-way ticket for convicted Cambodians

From Tom Mintier
CNN Correspondent

The returnees need to adapt to a life and culture that is very different to their experiences in America

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) -- They arrived in the United States legally more than 20-years ago, most as refugees. Now, they are being forced to return to Cambodia after being deported from the U.S.

Convicted of crimes in America -- including everything from domestic disputes to more offenses like armed robbery -- more than 1400 Cambodians are being forced to go home to a land they know little about.

Under an agreement signed last March between the United States and Cambodia, many Cambodians who arrived in the United States as children are being forcibly deported.

Most are not hardened criminals but caught in a system that requires deportation of non-U.S. citizens convicted and sentenced to prison terms of more than one year and one day.


Thai lived most of his life in California, but now suddenly finds himself back in Cambodia.

"This is like waking up in a nightmare," he says. Adding that "not in a millions years" did he think he would return to his country of birth.

Thai was deported for violating a restraining order obtained by his wife. Others returned to Cambodia after committing serious crimes.

"I went to school in the United States since kindergarten. All I know is the history of the United States," says one young man who was convicted of armed robbery. After serving his sentence in a U.S. jail he was returned to Cambodia.

The Returnee Assistance Project in Phnom Penh, headed by Bill Herod, provides accommodation for those returning from the United States. It is a project long with the desire to help but short of funds. Few aid agencies have programs for Cambodians who return like this.

"They did not come to the U.S. as criminals ... they came to the United States as children having survived the Pol Pot period," says Herod.

Language and culture

The returnees are now attempting to learn a language and a culture most thought was behind them. A one-way ticket back to Cambodia will mean starting life over -- wives and children left behind in the United States with no means of support.

"That's outrageous ... I'm just appalled that it can happen ... these guys can lose everything, their families ... their homes, their jobs, their life savings and be shackled on a plane and be sent off to Cambodia...that's outrageous!" exclaimed Herod.

Suwan's story is pretty typical. He's 34 years old, both his parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. He has a wife and two young children in Houston, Texas, where he was a supervisor on a construction project for the local government. His crime? Indecent exposure for urinating on the job site.

"I think that the crime that I commit ... [was not] bad enough to deport me here," Suwan says. He adds he had "made it in the States" with his "wife, two kids, a home. Drive to work and back home... I could live the rest of my life over there."

Financial support

What most of the men worry about is how to support their families back in America on less than $200 a month. Unable to speak the language, even getting a low-paying job will be difficult.

Until last March there was no agreement that would have allowed deportation back to Cambodia from the United States. Now there is.

In Cambodia the young returnees face a very difficult adjustment in a country they fled -- but not by choice. For many it is the third time to start over, not as refugees from Cambodia but Cambodians forced to return home.

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