Months after former immigration minister Scott Morrison toasted with champagne a deal with Australia to send refugees to Cambodia in exchange for an additional $40 million in aid, no refugees have arrived in the impoverished south-east Asian nation.
13 January 2015 | Lindsay Murdoch
South-East Asia correspondent for Fairfax Media
Bangkok: Months after former immigration minister Scott Morrison toasted with champagne a deal with Australia to send refugees to Cambodia in exchange for an additional $40 million in aid, no refugees have arrived in the impoverished south-east Asian nation.
But the government in Phnom Penh has confirmed that a small group of Cambodian officials has travelled to Nauru to tell refugees there about the “reality of Cambodia” ahead of them deciding whether they want to locate to the country.
“This is not a trip to advertise and to attract tourists to Cambodia; this is a trip to tell them about Cambodia,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said in October.
Refugee advocates doubt that many will accept an offer where they would receive accommodation and other services for 12 months and then be required to live without further assistance outside the capital Phnom Penh.
Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest nations ruled for three decades by strongman Hun Sen, who has often acted brutally against his political opponents.
Under the agreement announced in September, Cambodia will decide the timing and number of refugees that would voluntarily come to the country while Australia would pay all costs, in addition to the $40 million in “development assistance.”
An initial trial group of four refugees was meant to have arrived in Phnom Penh by the end of 2014.
The Phnom Penh Post reported that Canberra was paying the costs of the officials to visit Nauru, home to almost 1000 asylum seekers who risked their lives to get on boats to try to reach Australia.
Officials of the International Organisation for Migration, which provides services for refugees, will monitor the talks in Nauru, the newspaper said.
Cambodia’s agreement with Australia has been condemned by refugee and human rights advocates and Cambodia’s opposition parties.
Human Rights Watch reported in November that Cambodian authorities often extort money from asylum seekers already living in the country, most of whom want to leave.
“This [Cambodia] is a corrupt country,” one refugee said. “You will not find jobs. We have been here more than two years and we have no money and not enough to eat. It’s better to wait in Nauru. It’s a very, very bad life in Cambodia…there is no future.”
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday released a 67-page report on the 30th anniversary of Mr Hun Sen’s rule calling for urgent reforms in Cambodia “so that its people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture and execution”.
“For three decades Hun Sen has repeatedly used political violence, repression and corruption to remain in power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
Mr Adams called on influential governments and donors to end their passive response to decades of rights violation, repression and corruption.
“After 30 years of experience, there is no reason to believe that Hun Sen will wake-up one day and decide to govern Cambodia in a more open, tolerant and rights-respecting manner,” Mr Adams said.