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Cambodia resettlement concerns 'too precious by half'
Cambodia may be a country mired in poverty and corruption, but "so what?" asks Liberal MP Andrew Laming.
The Australian and Cambodian governments have been negotiating for months over a deal to resettle up to 1000 refugees from the Australian-run detention centre on Nauru in Cambodia.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was scheduled to meet her Cambodian counterpart on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting on the weekend and Australia’s Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues, Craig Chittick, will visit the country next week, Fairfax Media understands.
A spokesman for Ms Bishop said no agreement with Cambodia had been signed yet.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said through a spokesman there was "no further update on the status" of discussions with Cambodia since his visit to Phnom Penh earlier this year.
"The government is continuing its discussions on these issues and welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date," the spokesman said.
The removal of 1000 refugees would almost empty Nauru’s detention centre, which currently holds 1146 people.
But their arrival in Cambodia would represent a nearly 1500 per cent increase on the number of refugees the country officially manages.
According to the UNHCR figures, there are only 68 recognised refugees and 12 asylum seekers in Cambodia.
Critics of the proposed deal say Cambodia is unprepared to accept large numbers of refugees.
Joyce Chia, from the University of NSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law said the proposed transfer was “a flawed deal” for all sides and that the refugees should be resettled in Australia.
“It would be far cheaper for the Australian people, it would be a better outcome for human rights, it would be more legally compliant, and it would be better for these refugees who have been extensively traumatised by their incarceration.”
Cambodia has no infrastructure for resettling refugees, or government services to assist them. The UN says 45 per cent of the country’s population lives in poverty. As well, Cambodia is a Buddhist country and almost all the refugees on Nauru are Muslim and don’t speak Khmer.
“Cambodia is a poor country, a developing country, with no history of resettling refugees, or established capacity for that. This is not a long-term solution,” Dr Chia said.
There is also concern Australia is using its economic influence to coerce Cambodia into accepting its refugees.
Australia is one of Cambodia’s largest aid benefactors. In a dramatically reduced aid budget for 2014-15, the budget for ''cross regional programs'' was more than doubled from $309 million to $686 million. Labor accused the government of running a “slush fund” to buy off Cambodian co-operation.
“I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t some sort of quid pro quo here,” Dr Chia said. “That is consistent with what’s happened in the past. But the real question is why don’t we know, why has the Australian government not told the Australian people what Cambodia is getting in return?”
There are concerns about corruption in Cambodia – Transparency International ranks the nation 160 out of 177 countries for government transparency – and over human rights abuses committed by government agents. The country’s asylum policies are not immune from political pressure.
In 2009, 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers were forcibly deported to China even as the UN refugee agency was processing their applications.
The next day, China’s then vice president Xi Jinping arrived in Cambodia and signed 14 economic aid and investment deals worth $1.2 billion, thanking the Cambodia government for returning the Uighurs. “According to Chinese law, these people are criminals,'' he said.
Foreign media later reported that four of the women were condemned to execution, while the others were sentenced to jail terms in excess of a decade.
Cambodia is adamant no refugees will be accepted from Australia against their will.
“It is not that the government will force them to come or that Cambodia will accept [them] without studying whether they volunteered to come or not, and this is a very important aspect,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has said.
But the Australian deal has bred widespread resentment in Cambodia.
Opposition politician Son Chhay said Cambodia risked becoming a “dumping ground” for Australia’s obligations.
“Cambodia is not a rich country,” he said, “we have to find a way to help the refugees, but not to fall under the Australian policies of dumping refugees.”
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee said the country was not safe for refugees.
“There is a serious culture of impunity where Cambodian security forces and government agencies have been known to commit abuses such as killings, torture, and arbitrary detention without being held accountable. Those living on the margins are particularly vulnerable to the abuses.”
Tom Vargas, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the Australia-Cambodia deal was “not in the spirit of resettlement”.
“A real solution is not to send them to a country that is still recovering from a horrible civil war that killed millions of its people.”