PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Cambodia said Wednesday it would sign an agreement to resettle Australia-bound refugees on its soil, despite opposition from rights groups to the rerouting of asylum-seekers to one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations.
Under its hardline immigration policy Australia already sends asylum-seekers arriving by boat to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the remote Pacific state of Nauru for processing and resettlement.
They will not be allowed to settle in Australia even if judged to be genuine refugees.
Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison will visit Cambodia Friday to sign a memorandum of understanding “relating to the Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia”, Cambodia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Cambodian authorities declined to give further details of the agreement.
A spokesman for Morrison confirmed he would travel to Cambodia this week but gave no more details.
Cambodia has previously said it would only accept voluntary asylum-seekers bound for Australia.
It is not known how many refugees would be transferred or how they would be accommodated under such a deal.
The amount of money Australia is offering Cambodia to take refugees is also unknown.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with around 20 per cent of the population – or 2.8 million people – living in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Rights groups say it is ill-equipped to handle any intake of refugees, especially since its weak justice system and reputation for rights violations could leave newcomers prone to abuse.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, slammed the proposed deal as “a failure for refugees”.
“It looks like Australia has bought Cambodia to provide services for refugees,” he told AFP.
Australia’s conservative government this month hailed its “extraordinary” success in halting asylum-seekers arriving by boat – only one boatload of asylum-seekers has reached the Australian mainland since December, compared to almost daily arrivals under the previous administration.
But Australia has earned strong criticism for its dual policies of offshore processing and turning back boats destined for its shores.
Two weeks ago the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the policies were leading to “a chain of human rights violations”.
On Wednesday Australia’s shadow immigration minister Richard Marles called for more details on the deal with Cambodia, expressing “serious concerns” over how it may work.