PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) – About 100 people, including Buddhist monks, demonstrated outside Australia’s embassy in Cambodia on Friday against a deal to have asylum-seekers who were turned away by Australia resettle in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
Under the agreement, Australia will pay Cambodia AU$40 million ($35 million) over four years, plus carry the costs of resettlement.
It is the latest step in Australia’s evolving policy of deterring asylum-seekers from attempting to reach its shores by boat. The government has vowed that no boat arrivals will ever be resettled in Australia.
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is scheduled to sign the deal with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh to resettle an unspecified number of refugees currently held at an Australian-run detention camp on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Critics charge that Cambodia’s poor human rights record puts any resettled asylum-seekers at risk and that the poverty-stricken country is ill-equipped to handle them.
A Cambodian Buddhist monk, foreground, shouts slogans together with protesters near the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept 26. About 100 people, including Buddhist monks, have protested outside of Australia’s embassy in Cambodia against a deal to be signed late Friday that will see asylum-seekers rejected by Australia resettle in Cambodia – AP
Ou Virak, chairman of the nonpartisan Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said his country “couldn’t give humanitarian support even if we wanted to.”
“Cambodia is poor as hell. Most of her people do not have access to decent health care, education. Money alone will not able to fix these things for the refugees,” he said in an interview by email. “I think they will be left in limbo for years.”
Australia pays Nauru to house asylum seekers and has a similar deal with Papua New Guinea. Human rights groups have criticised living conditions at the camps.
Rights group Amnesty International said in a statement the deal was “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.”
“In January, the Australian Government condemned Cambodia’s human rights record at a UN human rights hearing, but will now relocate vulnerable refugees, possibly including children, to the country,” said Rupert Abbott, deputy Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International.
According to the group, there has been a marked deterioration of human rights in Cambodia, including a violent crackdown by security forces on striking workers and activists in January, while forced evictions, land disputes and land grabbing affect thousands of people.
Implementation of the deal is expected to begin later this year, though arrangements have not been finalised, Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
He said Australia had yet to engage resettlement service providers and potentially the International Organization for Migration.
More than 200 of the 1,200 asylum seekers on Nauru, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, had been assessed to be genuine refugees, he said. They would be eligible for resettlement in Cambodia, but only if they volunteer to go, Morrison said.
Ou Virak said that under international laws, Australia needs to provide necessary protection to refugees. “Sending them Cambodia’s way is the worst and most irresponsible act Canberra could have done,” he said.
The Australian Council for International Development, which promotes foreign aid, said the deal was “unnecessarily cruel and bad public policy – the deal places vulnerable people in a country ill-equipped to deal with their needs and it misuses aid, while ignoring other options.”