Australia Will Pay Cambodia $35 Million To Take Some Of Its Refugees

Cambodia will soon begin to receive refugees from Australia in a deal that has drawn protests from human rights groups and political officials in both countries.

by Beenish Ahmed Posted on October 9, 2014 at 5:27 pm

Cambodia will soon begin to receive refugees from Australia in a deal that has drawn protests from human rights groups and political officials in both countries.

“It’s a voluntary program,” Australia’s immigration minister Scott Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, adding that it would be up to Cambodia to decide on the number of refugees it would accept.

“You have to start small,” he said noting that only four or five refugees would be resettled in the early stages. “We’re not rushing this. It’s important we get the arrangements right. There are many challenges in running a resettlement program here, we know that.”

Although Australia has not insisted on a set number of refugees to be resettled, it has agreed to pay Cambodia $35 million over a period of four years in addition to covering “the direct costs of the arrangement, including initial support to refugees, and relevant capacity building for Cambodia.”

“They just try to outsource the refugees,” Suon Bunsak of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee told NPR. “[Cambodia] is not a nice place. Australia is a rich country. They should try to deal this problem by themselves.” 

Under this program, asylum seekers who may have hoped to settle in Australia — a country with a per capita GDP of $43,000 — may end up in Cambodia — a country with a per capita GDP of $2,600. Not to mention that Cambodia is seen as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and has yet fully recover to from a devastating autocratic regime which killed at least 1.7 million people and displaced two million.

“I think Australia should give Cambodia every opportunity to put aside its dark past and to embrace a much more prosperous, stable and secure future,’’ Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said. But others fail to see this new agreement in such a positive light.

“It’s shameful, despicable and unconscionable,” Hong Lim, an Australian MP who arrived in the country as a Cambodian refugee told TIME. “Cambodia has a terrible record of treating refugees,” he added, pointing to the country’s deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China in 2009.

Another Australian legislature called the deal a “bribe.”

António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement, “This is a worrying departure from international norms.”

“We are seeing record forced displacement globally with 87 percent of refugees now being hosted in developing countries,” he said. “It’s crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere.”

The UNHCR statement also made mention of the country’s poor track record in serving asylum seekers in the past, noting that many who “originally sought Australia’s protection…were instead forcibly transferred” to Nauru, an island nation.

Australia has stood by its decision to either turn back refugees who arrive without visas on its shores by boat or to transfer them to what it calls “regional processing centers” on Nauru as well as Papua New Guinea where about 3,300 refugees including more than 200 children are housed. The vast majority of boat-arrivals who come to Australia without authorization are from Yemen and 51 of those who have been resettled at Nauru by the government are men from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

“Processing and resettlement in Australia will never be an option for those who have been transferred to regional processing centers because they have arrived in Australia illegally by boat,” Morrison said in a video message directed to refugees late last month.

Even despite reports of sexual violence against children by detention center staff, unsanitary conditions and food shortages, refugees in Nauru don’t appear to be thrilled by the prospect of moving to Cambodia. After hearing news of this plan, a 15-year-old girl drank a bottle of cleaning fluid in an attempt to commit suicide. A spokesperson for the Refugee Action Collective said her attempt stemmed from fears of being resettled in Cambodia. The Australian government confirmed that she was transferred temporarily to Australia for medical treatment.