Don’t send refugees to Cambodia, human rights groups warn

Activists say existing refugees are already facing poverty and mistreatment, and Cambodia’s record on corruption and human rights mean it’s not a suitable place to send more of them.
"Corruption is pretty widespread, it’s one of the worst in the world," Ou Virak from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights tells David O’Shea from SBS’s Dateline.
David travelled to the capital Phnom Penh to find out what refugees from Australia could expect for a report to be broadcast on Dateline tonight at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.
"You cannot turn to the government for protection, that’s speaking as a Cambodian citizen, imagine refugees," Virak says.
Many already there have been forced to turn to support groups like the Jesuit Refugee Service in order to survive.
"We're looking at stateless people, we're looking at trafficked people, labour migration, and the land evictions, all of which are key issues for Cambodia to solve before it can take on the issues of refugees," says Sister Denise Coghlan from the JRS.
She’s lived in Cambodia for 24 years, helping provide support, accommodation and food to refugees. She has no time for Australia’s potential plan.
"It’s trying to shelve its moral responsibility and its legal responsibility off onto a country that is very poor, that has much less space than Australia has and has not a good record in human rights," she says.
Her group has helped provide a loan to a group of ethnic Rohingyas from Myanmar so they can establish a business selling Indian-style bread on the street.
"If the JRS wasn’t here, we’d all be dead," one of them tells David, but life is still very hard.
"The locals can't survive. Even the Cambodians can't make a living. How can I?" he says.
They also tell David that what they do earn is also often extorted by police.
The Cambodian Government said last week that it has agreed in principle to Australia’s request to accept refugees, but the Australian Government declined to comment to Dateline.
Human Rights Watch has also tried to find out more, including meeting with Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia, Alison Burrows.
"It ended up being a one sided conversation where I told her what Human Rights Watch thought about this idea," says Phil Robertson from HRW. "She took notes and said she’d send the note back to Canberra."
"We view this as a fundamental threat to refugee protection in the region, so it will become a major issue for us if it goes forward. We will fight it tooth and nail."
Campaigners have cited one particular case from 2009 as an example of Cambodia’s past mistreatment of refugees.
22 ethnic Uigher men, women and children were taken at gunpoint from a UNHCR safe house and deported back to China, reportedly under pressure from Beijing.
"The Chinese Vice President turned up at the diplomatic dinner the next night, said thank you very much for deporting the Uighers and here’s one billion dollars in aid," says Sister Denise.
Ou Virak says a lack of guarantee that they will not be put in danger once more remains a serious concern.
"For the right price, the Cambodian Government is probably going to do just about anything," he says.
"As long as the sufferings of people are beyond your sight, therefore it doesn’t exist … I think that’s a failure of the Australian Government, but also the failure of the Australian people."
The Cambodian Government announced last week that it has agreed in principle to Australia’s request to accept refugees
The Australian Government says it has "no further update" on the talks with Cambodia.
It told Dateline in a statement, "The Government is continuing its discussions on these issues and welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date."