Environment & Urbanization

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Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto

Eric Tang

Temple University Press, Philadelphia



Ra Pronh escaped the Cambodian genocide in 1979, lived in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines for six years, and moved to the New York neighbourhood of the Bronx with a refugee resettlement programme. Unsettled explores her life in the US, showing that displacement continued long after she was granted asylum.

Tang calls Unsettled a work of activist scholarship. It is also a reflexive, sociological account from a community organizer/academic that is interested in how researchers and respondents negotiate this relationship. There are therefore different entry points into this book, whether readers are interested in urban dysfunction, ethnic studies, the Cambodian diaspora, or the intersection of research and activism.

The book’s main subject is Pronh, a mother of seven, who has lived in 12 homes in 22 years. Her story is an indictment of a number of US institutions:

·         housing (with its predatory landlords and negligent social housing agencies)

·         social welfare (which was plainly insufficient for the 80 per cent of Bronx Cambodians who received welfare payments)

·         the justice system (which was tied to welfare’s politically motivated, and sometimes punitive, conditions)

·         foreign policy (which used refugees from communist countries for geopolitical purposes)

·         economic structures (to supplement meagre welfare payments, Pronh worked at home assembling hair accessories under exploitative conditions, sometimes sewing “Made in China” labels onto Disney products)

Unsettled also provides insight into the Cambodian population in New York, whose experiences diverged from those of other Asian groups in the US. For one thing, this was a young population, as there were many births in the refugee camps housing Cambodians in the 1980s. And due to the eradication of the Cambodian middle class during the genocide: "The overwhelming presence of the Cambodian working poor and unemployed in the Bronx and other cities, and the concomitant absence of a Cambodian middle/entrepreneurial class elsewhere in these cities, is what makes the Cambodian experience in urban America unique."

The majority of Cambodian refugees were resettled in inner cities where violence, unemployment and extreme poverty were endemic. Tang calls such a location a “hyperghetto”. He defines this as an ethnically segregated space enclosing the poorest urban dwellers, which shuts them off from opportunities. It has echoes of the legacies of slavery (and the subsequent segregation of black Americans) and imperialism (US resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in an attempt to reframe its military culpability in the region).

Clearly someone can remain a refugee after they are resettled, given destabilizing conditions in the new home country. In fact, Pronh’s stay in a Thai refugee camp was more stable than any of her periods in US housing. Whether held captive by the Khmer Rouge on the Thai border or subject to the arbitrary decisions of governmental and intergovernmental agencies, Pronh was almost fatalistic about the role of power in her life. Bureaucrats and warlords were similar in this regard. However, “like many other Cambodian refugees in the hyperghetto, she used movement as a strategy to resist final captivity.” This movement could be geographical, e.g. to and from refugee camps, or economic, e.g. within the constrained spaces for work and social assistance. Pronh’s story is therefore one of both restriction and contestation.


Note: A recent blog post by the author of Unsettled draws links between Cambodian refugees’ movements and those of Syrian refugees.


Further reading:

Mann, Gillian (2002), “ ‘Wakimbizi, wakimbizi’: Congolese refugee boys’ and girls’ perspectives on life in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 14, No 2, pages 115–122, available at http://eau.sagepub.com/content/14/2/115.abstract.

Sassen, Saskia (2012), “When the center no longer holds: Cities as frontier zones”, Cities Vol 34, pages 67–70, available at http://www.saskiasassen.com/PDFs/publications/when-the-center-no-longer-holds.pdf.

Wacquant, Loïc (2001), “Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh”, Punishment & Society Vol 3, No 1, pages 95–134, available at http://loicwacquant.net/assets/Papers/DEADLYSYMBIOSISPRISONGHETTO.pdf.


Book note prepared by Christine Ro

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