Cambodia, in South-East Asia, is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and in 2003 had a population of about 14 million. Cambodia’s population declined dramatically after 1975, as people fled to escape events that began when the Communist group known as the Khmer Rouge came into power. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge eliminated the country’s economic infrastructure and social institutions by abolishing money, schools and private property. They ordered the evacuation of the country’s towns and cities, forcing more than 2.5 million civilians into provincial labour camps. Approximately 1.7 million Cambodians perished from starvation, exhaustion and malnutrition, while others were tortured or executed for being ‘enemies of the state’.
In 1975 about 16,000 Cambodians managed to cross the border into Thailand. The exodus peaked in 1979, with an estimated 270,000 Cambodians walking into Thai refugee camps. It was not until after 1979, when Pol Pot’s regime collapsed, that the magnitude of the refugee crisis became evident. Over the next 13 years, hundreds of thousands continued to flee the country in search of sanctuary in Thailand.
Students and refugees
During the 1970s, 41 Cambodian students arrived in New Zealand on Colombo Plan and Ford Foundation scholarships. They were granted residency in 1976 because of the events in Cambodia.
A few years later the government responded to an international effort to address the Cambodian refugee crisis in Thailand. Between 1979 and 1992, New Zealand accommodated 4,661 Cambodian refugees.
Under the refugee resettlement programme Cambodians were granted permanent residency upon entry in New Zealand. On arrival they were transported to the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre in Auckland, where they stayed for four to six weeks. They were given medical check-ups and clothing, and were taught basic English, before moving out into the community.
Escaping Cambodia’s Killing Fields
Bouy Oan Ing and her daughter arrived in 1980. They had been interviewed by a New Zealand immigration selection team the year before in a refugee camp in Thailand. In New Zealand Oan worked as a field counsellor, helping other refugees settle. Her husband had taught at Cambodia’s Phnom Penh University before Pol Pot’s soldiers killed him. As Oan recalls:
‘They took him away about 9 o’clock one night saying that he was to work in another village. But in those times when the soldiers took you away at night they always killed. Everyone was afraid at night.’ 1
Once refugees left the centre they were placed under the care of volunteer sponsors who provided support during the resettlement process. A large proportion of Cambodians settled in the North Island, mainly in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. Many who had initially settled further south in Palmerston North, Christchurch and Dunedin slowly drifted to the main North Island cities for greater employment opportunities, a warmer climate and larger Cambodian communities. The wish to be closer to compatriots prompted about 10% of the population to migrate to Australia.
In 2013 Auckland had the largest population of Cambodians, with 4,188 people. Wellington followed with 1,704, and Hamilton had 1,410.