Cambodia has agreed “in principle” to accept asylum seekers intercepted while trying to migrate to Australia in a controversial deal that will see them being forced to live in one of the world's poorest nations.
“In principle, the government has agreed … and we will do the work according to international standards,” Ouch Borith, Cambodia’s secretary of state at the foreign ministry told reporters.
Mr Ouch Borith said it was too early to publicly discuss details of the agreement but he denied media reports that Cambodia had agreed to Australia’s request to take asylum seekers in return for aid.
Human rights groups have condemned the Abbott government for seeking an agreement to send asylum seekers to Cambodia, which has one of the worst human rights records in Asia.
The country is dependent on hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, with Australia sending $US244 million to Phnom Penh over the past three years.
Confirmation of an in-principle deal came only days after Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told Fairfax Media his government was encouraging countries that were willing to offer resettlement places to expand "permanent solutions" for people seeking asylum in Australia.
"It's not about whether they are poor, it’s about whether they can be safe," Mr Morrison said.
"That’s the issue. The [refugee] convention was not designed as an economic advancement program."
But the United Nations refugee agency has warned resettlement countries are obliged to deliver education and labour rights and “not just safety”.
“Cambodia is a country that has its own set of difficulties, including economically,” Volker Turk, the UNHCR’s director of international protection, said on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to speculate. The government has not contacted us on this ... it’s not just about safety, it’s about fundamental human rights,” he said.
Mr Morrison has not publicly revealed details of the agreement.
But he said in a television interview on April 10 it would involve asylum seekers currently detained on the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru.
Mr Ouch Borith said details were being worked out by a committee set up at Australia’s request.
“For Cambodia, this is just humanitarian policy,” he said.
Flavia Pansieri, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for human rights, said during a visit to Phnom Penh on Tuesday that the UN would be willing to provide support for a resettlement deal between Australia, Cambodia and Nauru.
“I have too few elements at this stage to be able to make any firm statements,” Ms Pansieri said when asked about the agreement.
“What we think is important is to note that Cambodia is well aware of its international commitments to human rights standards, keen to abide by them, and to the extent there is any need for co-operation, we stand ready to provide support to ensure that standards are met,” she said.
Both Mr Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have visited Cambodia recently to push the deal as part of Australia’s tough policies to stop the flow of asylum seekers into Australia.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Cambodia’s capacity to take care of asylum seekers or refugees is low and Australia is shirking its international obligations.
“Uighurs from China or human rights activists from Vietnam can explain about Cambodia’s shoddy record towards refugees,” he said.
“This proposal is absolutely shameful and deserves public condemnation across the region, from Phnom Penh to Canberra, and by the UNHCR.”