Fleeing violence at home, Iraqi migrant finds haven in Cambodia

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 4 June 2015 13:41 GMT

Hashim Farham, an Iraqi migrant who fled fighting in his native Fallujah last year and now lives in Phnom Penh, is pictured with his family in his "Taste of the MIddle East" restaurant in the Cambodian capital May 2, 2015. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Astrid Zweynert

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Cambodia has agreed to receive potentially hundreds of refugees who had tried to reach Australian shores, in exchange for an extra $40 million in aid from Canberra

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In his small restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, Hashim Fahram serves up fresh, golden falafel having found safety for his family far from his native Iraq.

The former blacksmith has been making a living for the past year serving Middle Eastern dishes to residents of Cambodia's capital after fleeing his hometown Fallujah in 2014 with his family to escape fighting between the army and Islamic State militants.

"It is much safer here for my family and me," Fahram told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Cambodia has been good for me, it's easy to start a business here and the people are friendly."

Cambodia has been in the spotlight as the first group of asylum seekers - three from Iran and a Rohingya - arrived on Thursday to be resettled under a controversial deal struck in September with the Australian government.

The impoverished Southeast Asian nation has agreed to receive potentially hundreds of refugees who had tried to reach Australian shores, in exchange for an extra A$40 million ($40 million) in aid from Canberra.

Rights groups have condemned Australia for trying to resettle refugees in poorer nations like Cambodia, a country frequently under scrutiny for human rights abuses and with an economy less than one percent of the size of Australia's.

LINES ARE BLURRED

International humanitarian and immigration policies make a clear distinction between refugees, who move to seek protection, and migrants, who mostly move for family or economic reasons.

But as thousands of migrants are crossing the Mediterranean in Europe and the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia in search of safer or better lives, analysts said migrants like the Fahram family show that in practice this distinction has become far from obvious.

"Refugees and migrants are often the same people," Gerhard Hoffstaedter, a senior research fellow in anthropology at the University of Queensland in Australia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"A key factor that unites all of them is that you leave your country involuntarily because living conditions there threaten your survival, be it violence, persecution or poverty," he said.

Refugee status is sometimes seen as the least desirable of legal categories as it may expose new arrivals to discrimination due to a heated, politically charged debate over migrants in many parts of the world, analysts said.

It also limits migrants' choices as they may not be able to study or run a business.

HARD CHOICES

Little is known about the backgrounds of the refugees who decided to make Cambodia their new home, apart from that three are from Iran and one is a Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority residing mostly in Myanmar.

The International Organisation for Migration said they will be given language training, education and health services and also be assisted with finding jobs to help them settle.

The Fahram family doesn't qualify for any government assistance because none of them have refugee status.

Fahram reckoned he could qualify as a refugee because he fled violence in his home country but said it was easier to come as a businessman because Cambodia made it straightforward for him to get a visa and open a restaurant.

He said he could not have done it without savings from his blacksmith business back home and financial help from friends.

"I may well have been a refugee because of what is happening in my country but I had the opportunity and the means to come without help from the United Nations," the energetic 51-year-old said, speaking in almost fluent English.

He first came to the region in 2009 to study in Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur's International Islamic University. His wife and sons lived with him there until 2012 when they had to go back to Iraq because of visa issues.

Fahram himself returned to Iraq in early 2014 when he could no longer afford the tuition fees but escalating violence in Fallujah forced the family to flee.

A STATE OF LIMBO

Without refugee status in Cambodia, the Fahrams have to rely on the authorities to renew their visas every year, which makes it difficult to plan for the longer-term.

Alistair Boulton, assistant regional representative for the United Nations refugee agency said migrants like the Fahram family lacked a support network and also needed protection.

"Certainly you wouldn't want to see anything threaten this person's livelihood, but that person should have the additional peace of mind and reassurance of recognition as a refugee if they have international protection needs," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fahram said he makes about $12,500 a year from the restaurant, which is enough to survive but their living standard is modest, with Hashim, his wife Muna and their five sons sharing two rooms above the restaurant.  

The Fahrams also do not enjoy some of the privileges Cambodia - as a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention - is obliged to offer refugees, which may include access to healthcare and primary education.

Thirteen-year-old Ali, the Fahram's youngest child, is not at school because the family's income does not stretch to paying $7,000 a year for a private school.

"Sometimes I try to teach him but I don't have a lot of time running the restaurant," said his father.

For all that is positive about being in Cambodia for the Fahrams, Hashim's wife Muna, who cooks all the food in the restaurant, said she cannot wait to go home.

"It's not been easy for me because I'm used to living in a Muslim environment and the culture here is very different," the 46-year-old said.

(Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Additional reporting by Alisa Tang; Editing by Ros Russell)

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