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.
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.
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.
Cambodians found employment with the help of sponsors, relatives and friends. But unable to speak English, and lacking suitable qualifications and appropriate occupational backgrounds, many had to work in manual and processing jobs. Those who came from a professional background found it extremely difficult to find appropriate jobs, as their qualifications were not always recognised in New Zealand.
In 2013 most Cambodians continued to work in manual occupations, with 57% employed as tradespeople, machine operators or labourers.
Mr Lim has left the Khmer Rouge far behind. In 1999 he opened his supermarket in Auckland’s Mt Albert. A huge banner on the wall depicts a rural idyll with the caption, ‘My home in Cambodia 1975’.
He arrived in 1981 and worked in a factory before opening his shop. How did he do it? One newspaper reports:
‘”People tell me I am clever,” he says. “I am not clever, but I work hard” – meaning he gets up at 3.30 am.’ 1
The Cambodian community has grown from just 41 in the early 1970s to 8,601 in 2013, although it is still one of the smaller ethnic groups in New Zealand. This is unlikely to change – political and social conditions in Cambodia have improved and the number of refugees selected for resettlement has dropped. A few still come under the family reunification scheme.
Many New Zealanders still do not fully understand either Cambodia’s difficult history or its cultural richness. But Cambodians have not forgotten their own heritage and traditions. Despite being small, communities have established various associations in their main cities of residence. There are groups in Auckland, Hamilton, the Manawatū, Wellington and Christchurch. Because they unite people and provide places to celebrate religion and culture, these associations have played a large part in preserving traditional identity. By the early 1990s there were enough Cambodian children at schools such as Porirua’s Brandon Intermediate to form a Cambodian group, which added a South-East Asian flavour to multicultural concerts held by the school. In Auckland the community was especially active, and often gathered for celebrations such as that in April 2003 when they observed the Year of the Ram. In 2003 the Auckland Khmer Buddhist Association acquired a two-hectare property in Takinini; there are plans to build a Khmer centre with a hall, library and temple.
Cambodian culture is becoming increasingly visible. With the help of festivals that celebrate New Zealand’s multicultural society, Cambodians are given the opportunity to showcase their traditional dance and food.
The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists, who use their temples as centres of religious and cultural practice. Suthep, a Cambodian monk, settled in the capital in 1985 and established Wellington’s Cambodian Buddhist temple in Island Bay. There are also three temples in Auckland, and one in Hamilton. Although most of the immigrants have retained their religious affiliations since moving to New Zealand, some have converted to other religions. There are small numbers of Muslim and Christian worshippers.
Integrating into New Zealand society has eroded the Cambodian language, especially among the younger generation. Young Cambodians have been assimilated more than their parents, and speak mainly English. To prevent the loss of their language and ensure it is maintained through successive generations, the community has established Khmer language classes.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Cambodia.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Haas, Anthony, and others, eds. People like us: celebrating cultural diversity. Wellington: Asia Pacific Books and the Government Printer, 1982.
Liev, Man Hau. ‘Refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.’ In Immigration and national identity in New Zealand, edited by Stuart William Greif, 99–132. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1995.
This website for the New Zealand Khmer community includes extensive information on community groups and religious and cultural events.
The website of the Auckland Cambodian Youth and Recreation Trust, which aims to ‘create fellowship among Cambodian youth’.
The story, in words and pictures, of a Cambodian refugee now living in Auckland.