Foreign refugee workers yesterday accused a French team of "kidnaping" 42 Cambodian children and sat down in front of vans taking them from the camp. Thai police broke up the 30-minute protest and the children rode through the gates on their way to new homes in France.
All were "unaccompanied minors" -- official parlance for children who arrive in Thailand without parents or relatives to care for them. The sit-in by about 15 refugee workers dramatized a growing controversy between refugee agencies and foreign governments over when the children can be called orphans and sent to live with families abroad.
The French delegation told reporters the children needed love and decent homes and must not languish indefinitely in a refugee camp. "I don't think and child is happy behind barbed wire," said one embassy official. But the protesters wanted to keep the children in Thailand for the time being because they feel some may have parents searching for them.
Privately, many refugee workers complain of what they call "orphan hunters" -- people who try to adopt Cambodian children whose family status the refugee agencies feel is unclear.
Officials point to the extreme difficulty in establishing that a child does not have parents still in Cambodia or among the half million refugees gathered in scattered settlements along the Thai frontier.
Some mothers, they say, leave their children at the camps' special centers for unaccompanied minors because the food and medical care there is generally better than in the camps as a whole.
Moreover, many refugee officials are troubled by long-range questions of ethics. Does not Cambodia's future, they ask, lie in its children? How can the country hope to recover from war and famine if its younger generation is dispersed to middle-class homes in Europe and the United States.
Officials concede there are no easy answers. The issue is further complicated because some Cambodian adults, disillusioned by the seemingly endless Cambodian conflict, discount the possible loss of parents or cultural identity and say the children should go overseas. And on at least one occasion when a mother turned up just as an "orphan" was about to go abroad, the child still wanted to leave.
Despite questions like these, foreign countries have continued to press for permission to resettle Cambodian minors. Belgium took 17 earlier this year and West Germany 109.
Refugee workers began to protest. Then early this month the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement calling for a moratorium on such resettlement pending responsible efforts to locate the children's parents. s
The U.N. statement came after French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing had announced 150 children would be flown to France in time for Christmas. The French insisted they be allowed to go through with the plan and the U.N. reluctantly consented.
But when news reached Sa Kaew camp this week that 62 children would be taken from there, tempers flared among foreign refugee workers. Many felt Giscard was making political capital at home at the expense of the children and their parents.
Of the 260 workers at Sa Kaew, 120 signed a petition of protest.
When the French team arrived yesterday morning it was accosted by several dozen doctors and social workers, some of them openly hostile. "What are we supposed to tell mothers when they come looking for their children?" an American physician asked.
Eva den Hartog, a Salvation Army major from the Netherlands, stressed that the protesters did not object to resettlement in principal. "It's the haste . . . that's all we're opposed to. It's being done in time for Christmas." The director of the children's center, established when Sa Kaew opened in October, echoed this sentiment: "Two months -- it's not long enough to know if they are orphans or not," said Se Jong Rim.
One American told the story of a Cambodian father who had lost his wife and son. "Approximately two weeks ago he was walking through the orphanage and he discovered his son," the American said.
Refugee officials said that 12 other children the French had originally planned to take had in the past six weeks found relatives in Sa Kaew who took them in. "Four of the kids found a grandmother in the camp and went to live with her," one official said.
The French denied that any children on their original list of 62 had found relatives. However, only 42 children departed (with eight scheduled to leave later following completion of screening).
It was extremely unlikely that any of the departing children had parents or relatives, the delegation said.
If parents were found, it was explained, families would be reunited by bringing the parents to France or the child back to the camp.
The French team claimed that every child interviewed for emigration wanted to leave. Interviews that reporters conducted later appeared to confirm that the children were enthusiastic.
Nem Sou, 12, said he had heard that France was a "very nice place" where he could enter school. A large, somewhat sullen child, he said he had not seen his parents since the Khmer Rouge took them away in 1973. Since then he had lived with a Khmer Rouge children's brigade. Two other children also said they were anxious to go.
It was unclear how most Cambodian adults felt about the departure.Relief workers claimed there was widespread opposition, but as the bus pulled out of the camp, scattered applause broke out among onlookers. There apparently was no organized attempt to stop the children and the camp's senior Khmer Rouge cadre appeared to have concurred in the decision to take them away.