Escaping conflict in their home countries, asylum seekers came by boat to wealthy Australia only to be packed off to a small island that built its economy on mining phosphates from bird droppings (known informally as “Bird Shit Island”) for holding and processing. With the phosphate supply depleted, South Pacific island state of Nauru signed in 2001 a $10 million aid package with Australia to be funneled to health care, education and infrastructure with Australia paying for the holding and processing its asylum seekers. Now Australia has inked a $40 million deal with Cambodia, one of the poorest nations in the world, to take processed refugees who volunteer to go.
CAMBODIA and Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) last Friday to take processed and refugees off Australia’s hands that are currently being held on the remote island of Nauru.
Pisey Ly, a grassroots Cambodian activist who advocates for marginalized groups such as homeless migrants and sex workers, told Asian Correspondent “although Australian and Cambodian governments claimed that they’re only sending and receiving refugees who voluntarily agreed to be resettled in Cambodia, I question whether or not those refugees have… a real choice. They ran from their own countries escaping war, conflicts, violence, political threats and poverty, and seek a better place for survival and protection.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch told Asian Correspondent by telephone from Bangkok that “the accepted [processed] refugees are made up of a variety of people such as Hazara [from Afghanistan], Pakistani, Rohingya [from Burma/Myanmar], with Australia observing the process. They are seen as poor, arriving on boats, so they are viewed as not worth supporting. Yet if they fly in, they are treated completely differently.” In December 2014, Australia changed the parameters to make it nearly impossible to get accepted as a refugee if one arrives by boat.
Many decades previously, Cambodia and neighboring Vietnam had their own refugees fleeing by boat, many of who were resettled in Western countries.
“Boat people in previous times were processed correctly but in this case it is being undermined,” explained Robertson. “I think the really sad part of this is it will undermine refugee protection and allow countries to pick and choose which refugees they want. If a claim is legitimate, it should be accepted. Refugees are not cars or cargo on a ship.”
This situation has been compared to the buying and selling of human beings. While Robertson does not quite accept this arguement, local activists do.
Ly explains “according to the UN Trafficking Protocol, trafficking requires three elements: recruiting, transporting, harboring or receiving persons with the use of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation.” Ly says reviewing the parameters, the situation looks coercive. “That’s why I am wondering about the legal aspect in relation to the transfer of refugees under this recent Australian-Cambodian government’s resettlement agreement whether or not it is a trafficking on removing adults and minors against their wills and exchange for values and the value here is aid from Australian government to Cambodian government.”
The details of the deal are indeed shrouded in mystery. The signing occurred two days after the end of a major Cambodian holiday when an exodus of urban workers returned to their family members in the countryside to honor departed ancestors. A hastily organized protest occurred at the Australian Embassy on Friday, September 26. Activists have not been able to see what the MoU entails and press were not allowed to ask questions.
Sophea Chrek, a former garment worker and labor activist told Asian Correspondent “we don’t know what is in the deal but know that $40 million USD is part of the agreement, but not the details.
“There were about 100 people at the protest. We wish there were more but there was a big national holiday [P’chum Ben] and everyone was getting back from the countryside. Not many people knew. We only knew from sharing information with other activist groups.”
This lack of transparency is worrisome to activists like Chrek and Ly. On Tuesday, local media reported an unsigned copy of the MoU revealed that refugees were required to leave the capital Phnom Penh after a year in order to continue receiving support.
Robertson says “that’s kind of worrisome. That indicates these people are not getting a full ride from Australia’s tax payers. After 2-3 years when the news cycle dies down, they are sent off to the countryside.”
In terms of existing rehabilitation centers already set to support marginalized Cambodian people, Ly says “Department of Social Affairs continue to rely on NGOs vocational training centers with few basic counselling skills, not professional ones, to receive some of these people both adults and children. We know that these NGOs are relying on external aid for [their] operation with inadequate staff and skills to accommodate these vulnerable people. This is not to mention some of the cases that involve physical and sexual abuses.”
In short, she does not see the situation as an improvement for Australia’s asylum seekers. Cambodia is greatly lacking in mental health services for its own people and is known to have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder from the years of conflict which continued in the provinces through the late 1990s.
“Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Cambodia (TPO Cambodia) is known as a good organization providing mental counselling service but again it is not a state service and we are not sure how much capacity they have for the operation,” Ly continues. “Once the funding has a shortfall, will the service be reliable? Similar to the Cambodian government in this case, once the Australian government ends its aid, will the government have sufficient funds to operate services for refugees? But I am not sure if it will be the government’s operation, or if the Australian government will [place] conditions to hire private company to run rehabilitation centers like they do in Papua New Guinea and Christmas Island.”
Given Cambodia continues to rely heavily on foreign aid and has a shortfall of government funds to support basic healthcare, education and other social services without international funds, Cambodia looks like an unlikely destination for refugees. But perhaps that it why the country was chosen. Aid-dependent and indebted countries while not lacking in free will, have limited options.
“The island [of Nauru] itself is heavily indebted, with low employment,” Robertson explains. “There is nothing there so they [asylum seekers] are stuck in the middle of the Pacific. The island formerly was $20,000 per capita and comparable to Singapore but it was mined heavily for phosphates from bird droppings and the funds were poorly managed. The government made a deal with Australia to hold their refugees but it has gone very, very wrong. Nauru itself has very little negotiating leverage.”
As an impoverished country, Cambodia surely is not in a better negotiating position?
Ly states “I see this as the business opportunity between Australian and Cambodian governments, and possibly contract private institutions to operate either companies or NGOs over vulnerable and marginalized human lives.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has publicly distanced itself from the situation. Chrek wishes for it to take a stronger position. “I wonder what the role of the UN is in this. What are you doing? Where are you in this?”
UNHCR in Cambodia has no listed budget for refugees according to its website, but Robertson believes there are about 50 accepted refugees and 20 in process, with most reliant on NGOs for support as they are not allowed to work in the country while their case is being determined.
Robertson explains it has only one representative in Cambodia who must report to the regional office. A poor, international aid-dependent country and a minimal UNHCR presence provides little push-back against the relatively wealthy Australian government’s reach, which is making it known that they do not want to accept the wrong kind of refugee.
As Robertson says, “they say they are respecting the principal [of the refugee convention] but they are undermining it actually. It’s not ‘Well you are a Hazara from Afghanistan so we can’t take you.’”