Cambodian immigration

2011-02-08 10:08:37

There was virtually no Cambodian immigration to North America prior to 1975. As a result of the Vietnam War (1964–1975) and subsequent regional fighting, large numbers of Cambodians were granted refugee status by both the United States and Canada. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 206,052 Americans and 20,430 Canadians claimed Cambodian descent, though many working with Cambodians suggest the actual number is much higher. Almost half of all Cambodians in the United States live in California, with the largest concentrations in Long Beach and Stockton. There is also a significant population in Lowell, Massachusetts. In Canada, Cambodians were widely spread following sponsorship opportunities, though more settled in Montreal than elsewhere.
Cambodia occupies 68,100 square miles of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia between 10 and 15 degrees north latitude. Laos forms part of its northern border, together with Vietnam, which is also to its east. The Gulf of Thailand lies to the west. Forests cover most of the country including the flat areas around Tonle Sap Lake in the central region and the mountains of the southeast. In 2002, the population was estimated at 12,491,501. The Khmer ethnic group makes up 90 percent of the population, which also includes 5 percent Vietnamese and 1 percent Chinese citizens. Theravada Buddhism is practiced by 95 percent of the people. The Khmer dynasty ruled Cambodia and much of the Indochina Peninsula between the 9th and 13th centuries. France established a protectorate in the country in 1863, linking the areas of modern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the colonial territory of French Indochina. France withdrew in 1954, dividing the region into North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia was embroiled in cold war conflicts with North and South Vietnam. When the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, Cambodian Maoist insurgents, organized in a guerrilla group known as Khmer Rouge, captured the capital city of Phnom Penh. Under the leader Pol Pot, most Cambodians were driven into the countryside and brutally forced to build up agricultural surpluses. It is estimated that between 1 and 2 million died as a result of execution, starvation, or disease. In 1979, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of the country over border disputes, toppling the Khmer Rouge. Thousands fled to Thailand, and many were eventually granted asylum in third countries. Vietnam withdrew troops in 1989, paving the way for United Nations–sponsored elections under a new constitutional monarchy. Khmer Rouge rebels continued to violently protest the government until their leader broke away to support the monarchy in 1996.
In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, perhaps as many as 8,000 Cambodians eventually found their way to the United States before the end of the decade. The first widespread resettlement of Cambodian refugees in the United States began, however, in 1979. Most were resettled by voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) affiliated with churches that had first been organized in 1975 in order to deal with the massive influx of Vietnamese refugees. The VOLAGs were contracted by the U.S. government to teach English and locate sponsors who would assume responsibility for up to two years. During the 1980s, about 114,000 Cambodian refugees were resettled in the United States, with almost 70 percent coming between 1980 and 1984. The majority of refugees in both the United States and Canada were poorly educated and from rural areas. As a tenuous stability returned to Cambodia during the 1990s, immigration leveled off, averaging a little less than 2,000 per year between 1992 and 2002.
It is estimated that prior to 1975 there were only 200 Cambodians in Canada. Between 1975 and 1980 some students, diplomats, and businessmen, left in limbo by the diplomatic isolation of their country under the Khmer regime, were granted permanent resident status. Most Cambodian Canadians, however, were refugees admitted during the 1980s and early 1990s, when Canada accepted more than 18,000. The largest number entered in 1980, when 3,269 were resettled. Of the 18,740 Cambodians in Canada in 2001, 11,240 came between 1981 and 1990, and only 3,315 between 1991 and 2001.