Australia’s secret refugee deal with Cambodia is about to be signed, amid growing opposition to the transfer agreement.
With a deal imminent, the office of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to confirm on Monday he was set to travel to Cambodia this week, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would not admit Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia, Alison Burrows, had been in meetings with the Cambodian government.
Cambodian officials were more forthcoming with details of the government’s activities in the impoverished south-east Asian nation.
“Regarding the issue of refugees, Australia Immigration Minister [Morrison] will soon, in the upcoming days, visit Cambodia. The minister will visit a number of areas in Cambodia,” the interior ministry told the Phnom Penh Post.
A ministry official also confirmed that Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia had met Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Friday in final negotiations on the deal.
The federal government has not divulged any details of the refugee transfer plan, but it has been speculated it will pay Cambodia $40 million to take up to 1000 refugees from the detention centre on Nauru.
Removing 1000 refugees from Nauru would almost empty the island’s detention centre – it is holding 1146 people – but would overwhelm Cambodia’s refugee infrastructure. The country has 68 registered refugees and 12 asylum seekers.
There are concerns Australia could be violating international law by sending refugees in its care to a place where they might face persecution.
Cambodia arbitrarily arrests members of minorities and government opponents, the United Nations says, and has previously sent asylum seekers back to their home countries where they have been jailed, or even sentenced to the death penalty.
Cambodia has said it will run background checks on all refugees Australia wants to transfer and will only take people who agree to be moved.
Labor and the Greens have criticised the government’s secrecy over its Cambodia transfer plan.
“It is time for the minister for secrecy to come clean on what the dirty deal is,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said. “What is it going to cost the Australian taxpayer and what are the arrangements.”
Labor’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, said the government’s record of asylum deals with other countries was woeful.
“It is completely unacceptable that Scott Morrison continues to keep the Australian public in the dark about any proposal to resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia.”
Fairfax sought comment from the Immigration Minister on the details of the deal with Cambodia, but questions were not answered.
Human rights advocates, refugee campaigners and legal experts have lined up to condemn any proposed transfer deal with Cambodia.
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said Australia was outsourcing its refugee obligations.
“At its core, the Australia refugee dumping deal is all about Canberra violating its rights obligations and paying Phnom Penh to clean up the mess,'' he said. ''Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government should be universally condemned for his central role in trashing the principle of refugee protection in the region.”
Daniel Webb, from the Human Rights Law Centre, said the government’s argument that the transfer deal was a regional solution was flawed.
“Cambodia is a poverty-stricken nation with a poor human rights record and no history of refugee resettlement. There are more refugees in the world now than there has been at any time since the end of WWII.
''Only a tiny fraction seeks Australia’s protection. Yet when they do they’re locked up on remote Pacific islands while our government prowls around the region looking for somewhere else to dump them.”
Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, said “shamefully, the government is trying to draw yet another poor country into undermining the human rights of refugees”.