But the Cambodian peasants who make up the bulk of the camp populations are overwhelmingly rural and are anxious to return to the farm. The result: While six months ago, 90% of families said they would only go with the United Nations, hundreds are now turning to guerrilla groups to provide land for them. International aid groups had been fervently hoping that refugees would stay under U.N. auspices, but the choice is ultimately up to the people themselves.
The guerrilla groups are anxious to have the returning refugees resettle in areas they control inside Cambodia rather than risk having them take shelter in regions where they might fall under the political influence of rival factions.
Last fall, an international outcry was raised when it appeared that the Khmer Rouge was going to force the thousands of refugees living in Khmer Rouge-run camps onto Cambodian territory it controls near the Thai border. The land was under the direction of a commander known as Nikorn, who was reputedly linked directly to the hated Pol Pot leadership.
While the forced-resettlement plans apparently have been dropped, hundreds of refugees have been taken since January on "escorted tours" of Khmer Rouge areas near the Mongkol Borei River.
Kim Ee, a senior official in charge of health matters at the Khmer Rouge-controlled Site 8 refugee camp, said in an interview that 1,600 families subsequently asked to be transferred to Cambodian farms in the areas held by the movement's guerrillas.
As Kim Ee noted, the group was offering immediate resettlement on land that has plenty of water and in some cases was even working farmland before the war. But the land now also contains land mines and a high concentration of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
While Kim Ee insisted that no coercion was used on the families who chose the Khmer Rouge land, one refugee official remarked that for most refugees the "gun is in the head," meaning that overt intimidation was not necessary to peasants so long exposed to the terror tactics of the Khmer Rouge.
In an earlier U.N. survey at the Site 8 camp, 95% of the people asked to be taken to an area away from Khmer Rouge control.
Apart from the shortage of land, officials are concerned about how refugees will adjust to their homeland after being away for so long. Nearly half the camp population is under 15 years old--and never worked in a rice paddy or knew the rigors of life in rural Cambodia.
The refugee camps are like bamboo-and-thatch cities, with broad rutted avenues and the foul stench of open sewers. There are schools and medical clinics--even clinics for the refugees' pets as well as such amenities as clean drinking water, fire stations and children's libraries provided by America's Moral Rearmament Movement.
Life in the camps is extremely comfortable by world refugee standards--U.N. food supplies long ago wiped out any traces of hunger. But only a minority in the camps have any farming skills. Classes have been conducted on how to grow rice and raise animals, but such sessions are considered a poor substitute for the real thing.
Compounding the problem, many of those in the camps are relatives of guerrilla fighters who are soon to be demobilized in Cambodia, thus losing their incomes--however meager they were.
How will the refugees fare in the countryside of Cambodia, where malaria is rife and water-borne diseases are extremely common?
"We're looking to the United Nations to keep providing us with food and medicine," said Kin Hai, a 56-year-old villager who now lives in Site 2.
The United Nations is planning to provide food assistance for 12 to 18 months after resettlement, and joint projects with other U.N. agencies will be aimed at setting up such things as wells for clean drinking water.
"They will have to make an adjustment," said Jahanshah Assadi, the U.N. agency's repatriation coordinator in Aranyaprathet. "It's not a humanitarian repatriation. It's a political repatriation," said another refugee aid worker, who asked not to be identified. "If this was a humanitarian repatriation, they would take more time to clear the mines and prepare the infrastructure to receive the refugees. Right now, only about 10% of the needed land is available."
The biggest concern in the camps, however, remains the security situation at home, where there have been reports of sporadic battles despite the cease-fire.
Under the Cambodian peace agreement, the four factions are to be disarmed under U.N. supervision, with 70% of the combatants to be demobilized and the remainder kept in special zones.
But the U.N. peacekeeping force, called the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, is not likely to be fully deployed until May or June.
Some refugee aid officials have expressed deep concerns about repatriating refugees with the peace force not yet fully functional and the factions not yet disarmed.
"They face a great dilemma," said a high-ranking U.N. official who asked not to be named. "If someone gets blown up, that will certainly halt the repatriation in its tracks. Land is not the issue. Protection is the real issue now."