Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp: Wikis


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Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp (also referred to as Sa Kaeo I or Ban Kaeng[1]) was the first organized refugee relief camp established on the Thai-Cambodian border by the Royal Thai Government with support from international relief agencies including the United Nations. It was opened in October 1979 and closed in early July 1980. At its peak the population exceeded 30,000 refugees but no formal census was ever conducted.


Origins of the Cambodian Refugee Crisis

Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea in December 1978 and by early 1979 thousands of Cambodians had crossed the Thai-Cambodian border seeking safety and food. By May 1979 large numbers of refugees had set up improvised camps at Kampot, Mairut, Lumpuk, Khao Larn and Ban Thai Samart, near Aranyaprathet[2][3]. Then on 10 October, 60,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers and civilians under their control arrived at Khlong Wa and, shortly thereafter, Khlong Gai Thuen[4]. These refugees were in advanced stages of exhaustion and malnutrition, and the need for organized living arrangements was obvious[5].

Establishment of Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp

On October 22 1979 Colonel Sanan Kajornklam of the Thai Supreme Command telephoned Martin Barber of UNHCR to inform him that that the Thai military would transport Cambodians at the border from areas south of Aranyaprathet to a location outside of the Thai town of Sa Kaeo, about 40 miles inside the border[6]. UNHCR was invited to establish a holding center there that would house up to 90,000 refugees[7]. UNHCR sent one of its newest recruits, British journalist Mark Malloch Brown, together with his Thai assistant Kadisis Rochanakorn, to survey the site, a 160,000-square-meter uninhabited area used for rice cultivation. The Thai government requested UNHCR to make immediate emergency preparations for the Cambodians. Brown contracted a bulldozer and started carving roads in the mud. A backhoe was hired to dig latrines. Water tanks were donated by Christian and Missionary Alliance (CAMA), which also donated 100,000 pieces of bamboo and thatch to construct a hospital, built hastily by 200 Thai workers Brown contracted at $2 a day. A crude warehouse was built. Catholic Relief Services donated plastic rope, straw mats and baby bottles[8]. With less than one day's advance notice, UNHCR and other volunteer agencies hastily tried to construct basic camp infrastructure as thousands of severely malnourished Cambodians arrived. Several hundred unaccompanied children were in these first groups of refugees[9].

On October 24 eight thousand refugees arrived by bus from settlements at the border[10]. According to Dr. Hans Nothdurft: "Initially, the camp was no more than a fenced-off area of bushland with no housing facilities, no water, and no sewage system; approximately 2.7 square meters of space were available for each person. Part of the area was designated for the camp hospital; a bulldozer-cleared field with some bamboo-canvas construction provided primitive sheller for approximately 300 patients.

When the first refugees arrived, there were three doctors, eight other health workers with limited resources and Ms. Julie Going (née Marder)[11], the then wife of a US diplomat stationed in Bangkok, who was recruited as an independent volunteer by Médecins Sans Frontières to perform nursing duties during the day and also to look after the unaccompanied children during the night. Julie was there at the foundation of the camp for the three months prior to the UN's official statement about aid. Nearly 2,000 severely ill or dying refugees were brought to the hospital area in the first few days[12]."

Within 8 days the population grew to over 30,000 people[13]. On arrival the health status of the refugees in Sa Kaeo was dire; for several months many of them had been starving in the mountains sandwiched between the Vietnamese to the east and the closed Thai border to the west[14]. During the camp's first 14 days of operation between 14 and 42 people died each day, according to Dr. Keith Dahlberg[15]. Following November 8, mortality dropped to a daily average of 3 or 4, over half of whom died outside the hospital[16].

Sa Kaeo was very crowded and camp conditions were very poor. There was no naturally-occurring source of potable water and the Thai military had to truck water in from Aranyaprathet. Drainage in the campsite was such that shortly after the refugees arrived, it flooded and a few refugees, too weak to lift their heads, drowned as they lay under tents made of plastic sheets[17][18].

Camp services

By the end of November 1979 some 15 Thai and international relief agencies were providing services at Sa Kaeo, including the Thai Red Cross, ICRC, MSF-France, Christian and Missionary Alliance, World Vision, and the Israeli Defense Force[19]. Catholic and Buddhist institutions provided additional volunteers as did several embassies. Numerous individuals also volunteered their services[20].

The medical personnel at Sa Kaeo (up to 60 doctors and 170 other health workers) represented different nationalities with different languages, cultural values, and medical training, but only a few team members had ever worked in a developing country or had seen malaria and severe undernutrition before--the two prevailing problems in the camp. Their repeated calls for x-ray facilities, for more laboratory support, and their preference for expensive drug regimens reflected medical cultural values of developed countries[21].

Water was initially carried by truck to the camp and stored in aluminum drums. Three deep wells drilled during the second week of operation were eventually connected via a network of pipes to distribute water throughout the camp. A trench latrine was dug around the periphery of the camp. Thai provincial health authorities provided insect control by draining stagnant water and spraying insecticides[22].

A 1,200-bed hospital was initially no more than a thatch roof without walls, where patients lay on mats on the dirt floor with medical records and intravenous solutions clipped to wires above them. Within a week, however, the teams had improvised a blood bank, delivery room, receiving ward, and special nutrition center[23].


Physical condition of the refugees

Mass starvation dominated the medical picture. Marasmus, kwashiorkor, beriberi, and anemia were widespread, with many patients showing all four. Vitamin deficiencies, particularly of vitamin A and vitamin B1 were common. Massive hookworm and ascaris infections aggravated malnutrition and anemia, especially in children. Dysentery, both bacillary and amebic also complicated many patients' nutritional status. Lice and scabies were also endemic[24].

Most refugees were infected with malaria, and 55% of cases were diagnosed as falciparum, much of it chloroquine-resistant. Numerous cases of cerebral malaria and blackwater fever were encountered, and a few cases of hemorrhagic fever due to dengue[25].

Composition of the camp population

First Lady Rosalynn Carter, on a visit to Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, holds a child in her arms while speaking with the mother, Nov. 9 1979. From La Vanguardia[1], 11-10-79, p. 33.

A large proportion of the Cambodians in Sa Kaeo were Khmer Rouge soldiers and the civilians they had forced to flee with them to the border[26]. This was because the Khmer Rouge were eager to move some of their cadre to the protected sanctuary inside Thailand where they could receive food and medical attention, rest and recuperate, and regain their strength in order to fight the Vietnamese[27]. It was also official Thai policy to maintain separate camps for populations under Khmer Rouge control, since providing aid to them was politically controversial[28] and because the Thai Government considered the Khmer Rouge the only force capable of mounting any meaningful resistance to the Vietnamese[29][30]. The Khmer Rouge quickly replicated their power structures in Sa Kaeo and their cadre exerted almost complete control over camp residents[31].

Visit by First Lady Rosalynn Carter

In an effort to show US support for the Thai response, First Lady Rosalynn Carter visited Thailand with several members of Congress and a barrage of journalists to tour Sa Kaeo refugee camp on 9 November 1979[32][33][34]. Her visit was widely publicized and appeared on the nightly news on all major US networks. In one frequently-aired clip, a refugee died in front of the First Lady while an American physician protested irritably: " 'This girl is about to go,' said an angry doctor, ordering the newsmen covering the visit to keep back. 'She just had a blood transfusion, but she's not going to make it.'[35]" Later the First Lady recalled: "I picked up a baby and put it down on a blanket on the ground. They started crying, and when I turned around the baby had died[36]."

Camp closing

Embarrassed by the unfavorable impression created by Sa Kaeo, the Thai Government asked Mark Malloch Brown of the UNHCR to prepare a new site with better drainage and more space[37]. In Late November 1979 Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was opened. The Thai Government immediately began transferring refugees out of Sa Kaeo to Khao-I-Dang. Since most of the refugees were under the control of the Khmer Rouge, the Thai Government encouraged them to return to areas of northwestern Cambodia under Khmer Rouge control. This was viewed as a gross violation of human rights by many aid workers, including the Preah Maha Ghosananda and the Reverend Peter L. Pond, who staged a protest at the camp's Buddhist temple in June, 1980 and were imprisoned by the Thai military[38]. Another camp, Sa Kaeo II, was opened and by July of 1980 all refugees had been transferred to other camps or forcibly repatriated[39], over 7,500 of them to Khmer Rouge-controlled areas inside Cambodia[40].


  1. ^ Rogge J, Return to Cambodia: The Significance and Implications of Past, Present, and Future Spontaneous Repatriations. Dallas, Tex.: Intertect Institute, 1990, pp. 36.
  2. ^ Rogge, pp. 34-5.
  3. ^ Thai / Cambodian Border Refugee Camps
  4. ^ Carney TM. Kampuchea, Balance of Survival. Bangkok: Distributed in Asia by DD Books, 1981.
  5. ^ Shawcross W. The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 189.
  6. ^ "Sa Kaeo"
  7. ^ Robinson, W. C., Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response. Zed Books, New York, 1998, p. 69.
  8. ^ Shawcross, p. 176.
  9. ^ Mason L, Brown R. Rice, Rivalry, and Politics: Managing Cambodian Relief. Notre Dame [Ind.]: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
  10. ^ "Sa Kaeo"
  11. ^ Julie Marder
  12. ^ Allegra DT, Nieburg P, Grabe M, Centers for Disease C. Emergency refugee health care: a chronicle of the Khmer refugee-assistance operation, 1979-1980. Atlanta, Ga.: Centers for Disease Control, 1984, p. 11.
  13. ^ Allegra, Nieburg and Grabe, p. 4
  14. ^ "Deathwatch Cambodia" Time Magazine cover story, November 12, 1979
  15. ^ Dahlberg, Keith: "Cambodian Refugee Camp 1979," an excerpt from Flame Tree: a Novel of Modern Burma.
  16. ^ Allegra, Nieburg and Grabe, pp. 30-33.
  17. ^ Levy BS, Susott DC. Years of Horror, Days of Hope: Responding to the Cambodian Refugee Crisis. Millwood, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1987.
  18. ^ Shawcross, p. 177.
  19. ^ Dahlberg, p. 6
  20. ^ Allegra, Nieburg, & Grabe, p. 12.
  21. ^ Ibid, p. 13.
  22. ^ Ibid, p. 36.
  23. ^ Dahlberg, K. "Medical Care of Cambodian Refugees," JAMA March 14, 1980 243:10, pp. 1062-65.
  24. ^ Ibid.
  25. ^ Ibid.
  26. ^ Allegra, Nieburg, & Grabe, p. 5.
  27. ^ Terry, F., Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, Cornell University Press 2002, p. 118.
  28. ^ Shawcross, pp. 351-370
  29. ^ Rogge, p. 37.
  30. ^ Terry F., p. 125.
  31. ^ "Sa Kaeo"
  32. ^ Kamm H. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. 1st ed. New York: Arcade Pub., 1998.
  33. ^ Shawcross, p. 189.
  34. ^ Rosalynn Carter, "When Statistics Become Human Beings," In Levy and Susott, pp. 53-62.
  35. ^ "A Devastating Trip," Time Magazine, Nov. 19, 1979.
  36. ^ Walker, Diana H., Public & Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Insight, 2002, p. 46.
  37. ^ Daniel Susott, “Khao-I-Dang: The Early Days.” In Levy and Susott, p. 78.
  38. ^ Chan, Sucheng and Kim, Audrey, Not just victims: Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003; p. 35.
  39. ^ Carney, p.14.
  40. ^ Rogge, p. 37.

Further reading

  • Levy, B. S. and D. C. Susott (1987). Years of Horror, Days of Hope: Responding to the Cambodian Refugee Crisis. Millwood, N.Y., Associated Faculty Press.[2]
  • Neveu, Roland, and Davies B. Cambodia: The Years of Turmoil. Asia Horizons Books Co., 2000.[3]
  • Isaacs A. R. Pawns of War: Cambodia and Laos. Boston, MA: Boston Pub. Co., 1987.[4]
  • Carney T. M. Kampuchea, Balance of Survival. Bangkok: Distributed in Asia by DD Books, 1981.
  • Dahlberg, Keith: "Cambodian Refugee Camp 1979," an excerpt from Flame Tree: a Novel of Modern Burma. [5]


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