Sunday, October 30, 2005

Independent on Sunday: America's Least Wanted

Thrown out of the US for their criminal activities, these men have been banished to lawless Cambodia, a land they fled as child refugees. The result: alienation, gangsterism and one almighty clash of cultures.

The US has come up with a unique way to prevent some young felons from reoffending that's far more effective than any amount of Asbos, electronic tags or curfews: when the criminals reach the end of their sentences, the government simply sends them to another country - permanently.

As part of a diplomatic deal struck between the US and Cambodian governments in 2002, the children of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s who have subsequently run into trouble in their adopted land are being deported. The problem is that most of them were babies when they arrived in the US, and have little knowledge of their "home" country - some have never even set foot in Cambodia before now.

They have been arriving monthly in groups of around 10, and it is estimated that there are over 1,000 more in the US who are eligible to be sent back. Unfortunately, while it may be a easy way for the US to wash its hands of troublesome citizens, it merely moves the problem elsewhere - and exacerbates it in the process. British photojournalist Luke Duggleby spent time with the men and says they arrive angry and confused.

"They get released from prison, then they get sent straight to a quarantine detention centre," he says. "From there they're put on planes and flown over. A lot of them arrive still wearing prison uniforms. They really resent the US government for doing it. They all say that, basically, it is just an extension of their prison terms."

Having grown up in the US, the men think of themselves as wholly American, and almost all are struggling to come to terms with their new surroundings. "The local Cambodians see them as foreigners," says Duggleby, "and that's why it's such a big problem. It's hard for them to merge in because not many of them can even speak Khmer."

Many of them first ran into trouble because of gang-related crime, so their first instinct is often to gather together and follow the same path. This is all too easy in their new home, where problems such as prostitution, drugs and violence are rife. "Cambodia is completely lawless," says Duggleby. "Then these guys come from America and crime is the only thing they've ever really known, so it's just natural that they slip back into it." (omega)

Thankfully, the men are now receiving some help in adjusting to their new surroundings, but not from any government. Instead, Bill Herod, an American with more than 30 years' experience in development work, has set up an organisation called the Returnee Assistance Project to try to give the young men some help in adjusting to their new home.

The problems he faces are as varied as the offences that the men committed before being deported, which range from relatively minor domestic and drug crimes, through gang-related violence to armed robbery and serious assaults. Most are housed initially in a small centre that he calls his "guest house" to help them find their feet, but, some have more serious problems and have to be held in secure facilities.

"One of the places is nicknamed Alcatraz," says Duggleby. "It has round-the-clock security and huge fences. Most of the guys there are on heavy medication. There was one who, in the psychiatrist's report he had from the US, said that under no circumstances should he ever be let out into the community. But they just sent him to Cambodia."

Herod bears the scars of working with such difficult - and damaged - young men. After struggling to prevent one of the returnees committing suicide by drinking a chemical solution used to unblock drains, some of the solution splashed into one of his eyes, blinding it permanently. However, he remains positive about trying to help, and believes that, despite all the problems they face, the returnees have an opportunity use their experience to make a break from their previous lives and start afresh.

Duggleby, a 27-year-old from York, was initially intimidated by the men and their gang-related pasts, but agrees that there is hope for them.

"They're big guys and when I first met them they were all very loud and boisterous. But, once you get to know them, well... I still keep in contact with quite a few of them as mates. Some of them are good guys who were just in a bad position and got caught. They didn't expect that they were going to get sent back to Cambodia."

To find out more about the Returnee Assistance Project, visit

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.