Study Guides

The Cambodian Diaspora

The Cambodian diaspora, as is the case with many other Southeast Asian countries, does not have a relatively long history. The Cambodian Civil War of the 1960’s and 1970’s was a significant turning point in the country’s immigration history, causing significant population displacement. Neighbouring Vietnam has the largest Cambodian population of over 1.4 million people, followed by Thailand with over 1.2 million, the United States with 277,000, South Korea with 46,0000 and Australia with 37,000.

Cambodia is overwhelmingly dominated by the Khmer ethnic, which accounts for over 90% of the country’s population and the two are often viewed as being synonymous. The Khmer people’s presence throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in major hubs such as Vietnam and Thailand, has existed for centuries and due to cultural similarities, the populations are well assimilated.

Cambodian presence in Western countries is a far more recent phenomenon. While there is history of Cambodian immigrants in countries such as the United States prior to the onset of the Cambodian Civil War, this was very minimal and mostly consisted of wealthier families. The political turmoil in Southeast Asia lead to significant population displacement in Cambodia. Outside of Thailand and Vietnam, over 1 million Khmer people live abroad, nearly 10% of the country’s 16 million people.

The United States was the main destination for political refugees due to the country’s major involvement in the Vietnam War, of which the Cambodian Civil War was a closely related conflict.

Cambodian-American small business owners with Ambassador Heidt, Cambodiatown, Long Beach CA, U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh

The population mainly settled in California, specifically in the city of Long Beach. Other major population hubs include Oakland, Stockton in California, Tacoma in Washington, Lowell, Massachusetts, Jacksonville, Florida and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota.

France is another major hub in the Western world, with a community of 10,000 Cambodians. This stems from the country’s history as a French colonial protectorate. Immigration to France from Cambodia has occurred throughout the 20th Century and as early as the 19th Century. Many Cambodians were brought to France as indentured servants while many sought residence and citizenship following service in the French colonial army. Many Cambodian refugees settled in France following the discord of the latter part of the 20th Century due to the pre-existing communities there.

main image: Young women are seated on stage during a celebration to mark the Khmer New Year in Lithonia, GA. © Sam Sith – FlickrKhmer New Year – Lithonia, GA2010-146