Dangerous political instability in Cambodia could put asylum seekers at grave risk, a leading academic has warned, as Immigration Minister Scott Morrison gave his strongest indication yet that refugees may be resettled there.
University of NSW emeritus professor Carl Thayer said he was shocked the government would consider the country as an option to resettle Australian-bound refugees.
"Sending them to the authoritarian country with political instability is a bad idea," said Professor Thayer, who has worked extensively in the region and oversaw Cambodia's transition from the foreign intervention in the 1990s.
"I haven’t got a clue how ethnic backgrounds would be treated in Cambodia. This is a very unstable environment. If the [Cambodian] opposition decided to oppose it, then the refugees are at risk."
But Mr Morrison, who has yet to confirm whether any resettlement plan has been agreed to, warned the right for refugees to resettle was not about giving a "one-way ticket to a first-world economy".
"It is supposed to be to protect people from persecution now whatever country that may be in. That is the focus of protecting people from persecution, not providing a passageway to a first-world economy," he said.
Mr Morrison also dismissed suggestions Australia would be adding to Cambodia's burden, arguing countries in the region that wanted to provide safe havens for refugees would be doing so voluntarily.
Cambodia, a recipient of Australian government aid money and one of the poorest in the region, is in the midst of political turmoil. The country's opposition party has boycotted parliament since the July elections, alleging widespread vote rigging, and its leaders have been charged with inciting civil unrest. Four garment workers were killed in January when protesting for a living wage.
Political tensions have been brewing in the country since the national elections last July, according to the Asian Development Bank.
On Monday, the government threatened legal action against opposition leader Sam Rainsy after he wrote to King Norodom Sihamoni last week criticising the King’s appraisal of parliament. The action could result in a year’s imprisonment.