Australia’s Cambodia refugee deal: A multi-million dollar failure
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Australia’s Cambodia refugee deal: A multi-million dollar failure

By Alexandra Demetrianova

LAST year, Cambodia accepted five asylum seekers from an immigration detention center at Nauru Island in the Pacific. It was a US$55 million deal with Australia, which was seeking to get rid of the 1,500 refugees kept at the notorious migrant detention centre.

In June last year, Phnom Penh has received five Nauru volunteers, most of them Muslims from Burma (Myanmar) and Iran, transferred to the Buddhist majority country. Months later, it turns out that the deal was a fail, as Cambodian authorities have recently admitted to the public.

“You could say it is a failure but at least we relieved them from the camp,” said Phay Siphan, Cambodia’s top government spokesman. Siphan admitted that Cambodia has not done much to help the refugees integrate into Cambodian society “because they are just temporarily looking for a third country to move to.”

The five asylum seekers, like many others taking the dangerous route over high seas to reach Australian shores with help of smugglers, were originally seeking a better life in Australia. Instead they were transferred to Cambodia, where healthcare, crime and discrimination of minorities can be very similar to their home countries, where they face persecution.

SEE ALSO: The wrong kind of refugee: Australia exports its problems to Cambodia

“Refugee status doesn’t mean they want to move to Cambodia for good,” the Cambodian government spokesman told Al Jazeera’s 101 East program. “They want to be in Australia or they want to be in a third country with more GDP… like the U.S. or Europe.”

However, the official refugee swap deal indicated that refugees will not be able to apply for asylum in third countries, and could only choose to stay in Cambodia or return to their home country.

While Canberra got rid of a very small part of their 1,500 migrants, Cambodia has received $55 million in return. It was a test case for Australian government’s plan of future such swap deals with other developing nations, celebrated over champagne at a reception for Australian and Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh.

Under the deal, Cambodia was to receive an unspecified number of refugees and be awarded $40 million in aid package from Canberra. An additional $15 million was donated to the International Organization for Migration to give care and services to the five refugees for the first 12 months of their stay in Cambodia.

Despite the large sum of money, Phnom Penh claims that it does not have social programs to support the refugees. Cambodian government spokesman Mr. Phay said the impoverished country “doesn’t have social services like ultra-modern governments”.

This statement contradicts the information Australian officials on Nauru Island present to asylum seekers in order to get them volunteer for resettlement in developing countries. The official materials portray Cambodia as a land with plenty of job opportunities and no violent crime.

The Cambodian public and the opposition in parliament haven’t received the refugee deal with Australia well. Last year riot police had to keep watch outside Australian embassy in Phnom Penh as about 100 locals protested, saying the poverty-stricken Kingdom was unable to take care of its own citizens, let alone additional refugees. And it seems they were right. Shortly after the first of the five refugees were resettled to Phnom Penh last year, Fairfax Media revealed that one of them, a 28-year-old Rohingya Muslim, has been struggling in his new home.


A Cambodian Buddhist monk, foreground, shouts slogans together with protesters near the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia after the announcement of a deal to to resettle asylum seekers. Pic: AP.

Mohammad Rashid said in an interview, that he felt abandoned and feared he would die in Cambodia. He suggested he was being poorly treated, suffered health problems and IOM officials have not been delivering enough services. A Cambodian government official called Mohammad “a liar”. A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, awarded the US$15 million to care for the five refugees, said the migrants were “fine.”

“They’re fine and as usual they have asked for privacy so we are respecting that,” he said, adding that they were still living in a villa in Phnom Penh that was initially labeled temporary housing. “When they are ready to leave [the villa] they can. I don’t think any of them have expressed any desire to go.”

The Rohingya man in poor health wasn’t the only one complaining. Three other refugees have since returned to their home countries. An Iranian man also in his 20s – the only other refugee remaining in Cambodia now – has told his relatives Australia broke its promises given on Nauru island and soon he, too, will be returning to Iran.

Cambodian government spokesman Mr. Phay Siphan told al Jazeera there were plans “to build a refugee centre in Cambodia controlled by Australian embassy,” but no further details were given. Since then, Cambodia announced that this was the first and last group of asylum seekers received from Australian detention centers – despite the fact, that the deal never specified the number of people to be transferred from Nauru.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the refugees who arrived were “enjoying their life” in Cambodia, but that he did not expect more to follow. “We don’t have any plans to import more refugees from Nauru to Cambodia,” he said. “I think the less we receive the better.”

Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, which monitors the refugees on Nauru, said efforts by Australia to get more refugees to volunteer for resettlement in Cambodia had ceased. “They made a big effort in the first few weeks after [the four] were sent. They put up a shipping container with a sign on it that said ‘Cambodia Information Hub.’ They started cold-calling and using interviews to try to convince people,” he said. “But they got nobody.”

Mr. Rintoul said that he had received reports that refugees already in Australia were being pressured to come to Cambodia, but that Australia and Cambodia had seemingly given up on convincing the hundreds of refugees still on Nauru. “Certainly the effort on Nauru itself has stopped,” he said.

The refugee deal has been controversial from the beginning, drawing condemnation from human rights advocates, including Human Rights Watch. Deputy director of HRW’s Asia division Phil Robertson openly speaks about Cambodia’s government as a corrupted regime, now “laughing all the way to the bank”.

“It was a classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor, get the money upfront but don’t concede the operational control over the project – and then stall or obfuscate until you get the outcome you want, which in this case was only a handful of refugees,” he said.

Currently Australia is in negotiation with at least three other developing countries to resettle the 1,500 asylum seekers from Nauru and also PNG’s Manus island.