Circular migrants: comparing Cambodian returnees from France and America

Gea Wijers, of the Vrije University Amsterdam, studies Cambodian immigrants who have gone back to Cambodia: "returnees."

Gea Wijers, of the Vrije University Amsterdam, studies Cambodian immigrants who have gone back to Cambodia: “returnees.”

By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican 

Columnist’s note: After almost a year of sharing case studies from my research on Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees with you on, I think it is time for these publications to reach a conclusion. This summer I will be defending my related dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

My dissertation’s title, “Navigating a river by its bends,” is inspired by a Cambodian proverb reminding us to follow a country’s customs when we want to build our lives there.* In a country covered with waterways like Cambodia, the importance attached to these flows illustrates the importance I attach to exploring the ways in which the flow of return is navigated. This research explored the experiences of returnee institutional entrepreneurs.

Institutional entrepreneurs are understood as “actors with sufficient resources who see in the creation of new institutions and opportunity to realize their interest” (DiMaggio, 1988:14). The definition of the institutional entrepreneur central to this research is focused especially on their role in “building,” “brokering” and “bargaining” for transformative change in Cambodia. In the comparison of Cambodian returnees’ contributions to the transformation of Cambodia, I looked into Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees’ creation and employment of social capital in their transnational social networks through institutional entrepreneurial activities upon return. In this conclusion, my findings are brought together and interpreted in light of the theoretical framework.

My research grew from the question of why Cambodian American and Cambodian French returnees employ different strategies in working for Cambodia. Why does the first group often start an NGO and the latter rather work for the Cambodian government?

The study explores, describes, analyzes and compares narratives on migration, institutional entrepreneurial activity and return by a small sample of these returnees. This has resulted in the construction of multiple case studies that illustrate the experiences and activities of Cambodian American and Cambodian French transnational institutional entrepreneurs.

The central research question is “In what ways do first-generation Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees create and employ their social capital in institutional entrepreneurial activities upon return?” This subject is linked to the societal debate on the ways in which the broad spectrum of institutional entrepreneurial activities, as visible in, for instance, (inter)national aid organizations and the government sector, may impact the development of an emerging nation.

A comparison of Cambodians’ experiences

As of 1975, Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime were entitled to official refugee status in countries that had signed the 1951 International Convention on Refugees. In several waves, they made their way abroad, while their homeland was effectively closed off from the outside world. Mainstream media were not reporting on the actual events under the Khmer Rouge regime. While the world was not aware of the violence the refugees were fleeing, both France and the United States were notable in the number of Cambodians who found refuge there and the relatively benign circumstances of their resettlement.

In this research, the experiences of the first two waves, relatively small,  of Cambodian refugees were explored. The focus was on those who arrived in Lyon, France and Long Beach, California in the United States. The members of these refugee waves stand out in their relatively well-to-do backgrounds, growing up as educated, middle- and upper-class citizens in the post-colonial Cambodian “golden years,” and their independence in resettlement.

The two localities were selected for both the quality and quantity of Cambodian refugees that had resettled there. Members of these first waves especially have played leading roles in the Cambodian communities established there. Many of them have returned and tried to contribute to transformative changes in post-conflict Cambodia.

Lyon, France

In Lyon, the conditions of Cambodian refugees’ reception were deeply affected by the history of refugee resettlement and the positive political bias with respect to the Southeast Asian groups in comparison to other groups of migrants.

The cultural and social mood and the supportive media attention at the time of their arrival helped initiate an atypical political mobilization of resources for the Cambodian asylum seekers as well as the larger group of Southeast Asian refugees they were a part of. For my informants, as they compared themselves to other migrant groups, they were perceived as relatively compatible with French society due to, among other things, the French-inspired education system in post-colonial Cambodia.

In general, the Cambodians’ feeling of being part of French society resulted in the Cambodian French informants’ tendency to feel integrated in French society and express fewer ambitions to return. These positive perceptions on both sides are not unequivocal, however, and have also turned the refugees into political pawns in some sense. The warm rhetoric that accompanied the Cambodians’ reception  later  led at times to disappointment and a sense of abandonment among the Cambodians.

The French government privately failed to provide them, in fact, with the help that was promised in public. Furthermore, initially, it resulted in the mixed experiences of refugees who were occasionally  perceived as anti-communist as they were fleeing the Vietnamese troops. They would be refused the support locally that was agreed upon officially.

The comparison of findings reveals that, for the Cambodian French, this ‘successful integration’  has resulted in a discourse implying that contributing to transformative change in their homeland is important, yet that it does not mean they will have to resettle in Cambodia. For instance, while claiming their lawful French benefits and fulfilling their mortgage obligations, my informants in the overseas communities proudly mention their feelings of “homecoming”  in Cambodia. The Cambodian French re-migrants they refer me to may also rather be characterized as “circular migrants.”

The Cambodian French in Lyon and many of the returnees prioritize their firm embeddedness, financially and socially, in French society. A general disappointment in the progress made in Cambodia concerning transformative change seems to have set in among them, affecting choices on resettlement.

It seems that, over the years, the more information on Cambodian society is accessible to them, the less their tendency to become involved in Cambodian politics. Their successful assimilation into French society has lowered their expectations of, and desire for, a renewed homecoming. As Prak (1992) proposes, both as resettling refugees and as entrepreneurial returnees the Cambodian French generally remain “in the shadows” of French and Cambodian society (Prak, 1992: 20-21).

Long Beach, California, USA

In contrast, many of the Cambodian American informants in Long Beach spoke about the hardship and marginalization they have faced in US resettlement. The Cambodians arriving in Long Beach often belonged to modest or lower social classes. Those who arrived before 1979 were dwarfed by the mass of uneducated agrarian Cambodians arriving in the 1980s.

While the Cambodians who were already living in the United States before 1975 and had studied there did their best to aid the relatively small wave of refugees arriving between 1975 and 1979, initially the new arrivals’ integration into American society was often limited compared to the Cambodian French resettlement in France. When the larger waves arrived, the community leaders were a little better prepared, but the absence of Cambodian American networks and a solid community infrastructure to support the struggle for economic self-sufficiency remained a barrier to their resettlement processes.

For the Cambodian community in Long Beach, the city’s popularity as a destination for primary and secondary resettlement depleted the limited resources it could offer. Federal and local US governments’ policies were based on the idea of multicultural nationalism, which proposed a competition for resources between strong communities fostering their ethnic identity with cultural pride.

It seems, however, that the authorities may have underestimated the arriving Cambodian refugees’ cultural competence, educational attainment and social needs. With immersion in society as the central strategy for social adaptation, Cambodian communities were supposed to play a leading role in resettlement. However, it required shared feelings of solidarity and identity for the community to come together, while the Cambodian community in Long Beach has been  fragmented based on issues and conflicts from the homeland.

The Cambodian American informants in Long Beach generally express high expectations for a return home. Extensive and visible homeland attachments and involvements show that transnational activities in the Long Beach community are not necessarily “choices” but may provide an escape from a socially marginalized existence in the United States.

For example, political rhetoric during public events and a history of support for military activities that were initiated on the Thai border during the Vietnamese takeover (1979-1989) demonstrate aspects of diasporic nationalism in this overseas Cambodian community.

The Cambodian American informants paint a picture of idealism on the one hand, but on the other, limited opportunities within the Cambodian community in the US. There seems to be prestige in taking the leap and planning permanent return to and resettlement in Cambodia. In referring me to successful returnees, however, it becomes clear that many of them have little direct contact with, or knowledge of, the returnees’ activities in Cambodia.


Since 1953, competing hegemons of western and eastern forces, among others, have informally fought their wars on Cambodian territory. Today, moreover,  aid dependence has delivered the country into new structures of alternative governance.

This study takes as a basic assumption the hybrid democracy in Cambodia that has evolved from the traditional patronage system fostered by Cambodian politics and the western ideals advocated by the NGO-sector. In this oppressive institutional context, marked by a weak state and limited freedoms of speech and press, many of the Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees are set apart. They are the anikatchun, the “foreigners” that have come back to Cambodia.

Returnees from both France and the US, to a different extent become stuck and isolated in following the flows imposed on them by host land and homeland institutions. Both the Cambodian American and Cambodian French informants of this research explain how perceptions of group and individual identities, their feelings of “belonging,” “homecoming” and being part of social networks are re-evaluated and re-negotiated upon return to Cambodia. As a result, the returnees’ transnational ties and distinct histories have sometimes actively led to a dynamic of cultural exclusion, self-exclusion and even marginalization upon return to Cambodia.

When it comes to the institutional entrepreneurs’ roles as builders, their institutional entrepreneurial activities do not lead to the significant contributions to the transformation of Cambodia that they had intended and that were expected of them. The social capital these returnees have created in their host lands is hard to leverage  in Cambodia, whereas their transnational social networks have mixed functions and objectives. Resistance and disinterest toward institutional entrepreneurship by their fellow Cambodians in the country, as well as their distrust, often neutralizes the effectiveness of their intentions to make change happen.

In the 1990s, when Cambodia was in its first post-conflict period of recovery under UNTAC, the Cambodian French initially had the advantage of a warm welcome due to the historical relations between the two countries. In contrast, the Cambodian Americans were limited in their actions by a lack of opportunity to voice their ideas from within the governmental sector.

Over time, however, the US gained economic influence, as did the Cambodian American returnees in positions available to “brokers” able to mediate between English-speaking NGOs and donors and the Cambodian government. As the regime consolidated, the Cambodian French found themselves at a disadvantage in the local labor market, since French is not the language of the international NGO world, and France no longer holds a hegemonic position as a colonial power in Southeast Asia.

Remarkably, both those returnee institutional entrepreneurs considered successful and well-integrated as well as those considered to have failed in re-establishing their social status upon return have had to deal with cultural exclusion in Cambodia. Both the Cambodian Americans and the Cambodian French are perceived as separate groups of minorities with their own customs and approaches.

The returnees’ reactions to this exclusion has been either a search for autonomy and the adoption of an independent course of action (an exit from the system), or a continuing bargain for social legitimacy while finding embeddedness within (semi-)governmental organizations (a voice in the system). However, issues pertaining to dual loyalties and political affiliations have led to suspicions and exclusion in both host lands and homeland, thus restricting returnees’ embedding and social legitimacy.

Final remarks

For those interested in reading the full dissertation, please email me at [email protected] so I can send you more information upon its publication. Also, the chapters have developed into articles that were submitted for publication at peer-reviewed journals. As of April 2013, some have been published, others are accepted and in need of some extra editing, and others are still under review.

While the introduction will remain a singular publication in the dissertation, the second chapter, on methodological issues, has been submitted to Forum: Qualitative Social Research and is currently being reviewed there. The third chapter discusses the reception of Cambodian Refugees in France and has been published in the Journal of Refugee Studies in 2011 (Vol. 24 (2): 239-255). Following the Cambodian French returnees to Phnom Penh, the fourth chapter addresses their experiences as institutional entrepreneurs and has been accepted as a book chapter for the forthcoming Ashgate publication Entrepreneurship in the Polis: contested entrepreneurs and dynamics of change in diverse contexts (Narbutaite Aflaki, I. and Petridou E. (eds), 2014). Exploring the Cambodian community in Long Beach, California, the fifth chapter, will be published by the Journal of Migration and Development (2013, doi: 10.1080/21632324.2013.773154), while the sixth chapter has been published in Ethnic and Racial Studies  (2013, doi:10.1080/01419870.2013.782058).

This PhD trajectory has provided me with many moments of awe in conversation with the exceptional people I have been allowed to meet and spend time with. In closing, I would like to put them in the limelight and emphasize that the Cambodian refugees deserve the respect of a more positive image and the acknowledgment of their societal progress.

I need to say a big “thank you” to all my Cambodian friends and my Cambodian French, Cambodian American and “Cambodian Cambodian” informants, as well as their families, for sharing your thoughts, your contacts and your experiences in the Cambodian community.

You are the survivors of tragic times, survivors who have been able to readjust to a changed sociocultural context and restore your dignity. Many of you, indeed, have recreated your overseas worlds from the proverbial grain of sand after witnessing your old lives disappear. Today, the Cambodian communities in France and the United States are vibrant examples of the Cambodian survivors’ achievements. This study hopes to bear testimony to your remarkable history and make a small contribution to your proud future.

An aerial view of the Mekong River.


 *This translation of the well-known proverb “Navigate a river by following its bends, live in a country by following its customs” is available in The Asian American Almanac (Gall, 1995: 33) yet many others exist. The Khmer script leaves room for a diversity of translations that will also be subject to change in an English or French version. While ‘navigating’ may become, for instance, ‘travel’ or ‘sail’ and the ‘river’ could be a ‘flow’, the essence of the proverb’s pragmatic message remains intact.

Most Popular

To Top