Civil Peace Service/Special Initiative on Displacement: (Re-)integration of former Vietnamese refugees

Project description

Title: Civil Peace Service/Special Initiative on Displacement: Strengthening conflict-sensitive (re-)integration of former Vietnamese refugees and other minorities
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
Country: Cambodia
Overall term: 2014 to 2019

Ziviler Friedensdienst (ZFD). Studierende unterschiedlicher ethnischer Herkunft absolvieren ein Training zu interethnischer Konfliktanalyse und -transformation. © GIZ


In Cambodia, decades of violent conflicts have caused large-scale population movements, displacement and expulsion. The consequences of this violence are still impeding sustainable and socially equitable development today. The Vietnamese minority suffers particularly from the negative effects of historically entrenched discrimination.

During the Khmer Rouge period in the 1970s, some 170,000 Vietnamese were deported from Cambodia; around 20,000 fell victim to ethnic and political purges. In the 1980s, the majority of the refugees returned to Cambodia. Immigrants from Vietnam, who arrived with the Vietnamese army, also settled here. The authorities, however, treated the refugees not as returnees but as immigrants. Effectively stateless and socially, economically and politically marginalised, they are one of the weakest groups in Cambodian society. The perceptions and attitudes of many Cambodians are coloured by the idea of a ‘Vietnamese threat’. This results from a failure to deal constructively with the past, but it is also due to unresolved territorial conflicts in the border regions between Cambodia and Vietnam. The growth in Vietnamese investment, which is leading to conflicts over land, reinforces the stigmatisation. Cambodian public debate about the Vietnamese minorities is highly polarised and politicised and has nationalist overtones.


The (re-)integration of long-established Vietnamese minorities, particularly former refugees who have returned to Cambodia, their political participation and legal situation are improved. Awareness of these groups’ precarious situation has been raised. Social cohesion in multi-ethnic communities is strengthened and the potential for conflict is reduced. Prospects for the future of the ethnic Vietnamese and other minorities are improved.


The Civil Peace Service (CPS) is working to identify the specific causes of the social and economic exclusion of Vietnamese minorities. It also promotes cooperation and peaceful conflict transformation and raises awareness of this group’s precarious legal status. CPS collaborates with local non-governmental organisations and fosters dialogue with a range of stakeholders, including local authorities and government institutions.

Basic research focusing on past experiences and socio-economic needs is improving the information available about the Vietnamese and other minorities. Research on access to education is of particular interest in this context. The results of this research will feed into the public debate and help to dismantle prejudices and fears about supposed ‘Vietnamisation’ and exploitation by outsiders.

Dialogue processes and information, education and awareness-raising activities are empowering young people from diverse communities to overcome ethnic discrimination while developing their capacities for non-violent conflict resolution. Stakeholder networking is intended to establish the structures needed by a society that takes ownership of its ethnic diversity.

Affected individuals and local authorities are being sensitised to the Vietnamese minorities’ current legal status and the challenges that it creates. Over the medium term, this will build support and advocacy for improving their status in law. Legal advice, radio broadcasts about interethnic relations, theatre workshops, documentaries and films, training exercises and public events add to the body of information and help to raise awareness.

The project is part of the BMZ Special Initiative entitled ‘Tackling the root causes of displacement, reintegrating refugees’.


Access to information about the status of the Vietnamese minorities has improved and human rights abuses have been documented. Several provinces have hosted a travelling exhibition about the deportation and murder of Vietnamese and Cham during the Khmer Rouge era. Visitors to the exhibition had an opportunity to critically question the mainstream historical narrative and re-examine their own prejudices. A documentary is also available, focusing on ethnic migration in the floating villages along the Tonlé Sap River.

Another well-established methodology is forum theatre, a culturally sensitive technique which enables interethnic conflicts to be visualised and addressed. It encourages the audience to get involved in the search for innovative solutions. A film was produced as a documentary record of the forum theatre process, showing how this methodology can be used as a peacebuilding tool by civil society organisations. Dialogue events provide a forum for questioning ethnic stereotypes and exploring the prospects for a multicultural and ethnically inclusive society. Workshops in Vietnamese communities have created a better understanding of legal issues. Representatives of Vietnamese minorities are making use of their newly acquired knowledge to engage more effectively with local authorities, particularly on access to state schools.

Civil Peace Service (CPS). Former Vietnamese refugees live on houseboats, because they are not allowed to own land without holding Cambodian citizenship. © GIZ

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