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Australia and Cambodia's shady asylum seeker deal

PM Abbott's record on this issue grows ever more shameful

<p>Australians protest against the asylum seeker policy in Sydney in August 2013 (AFP photo/Saeed Khan)</p>

Australians protest against the asylum seeker policy in Sydney in August 2013 (AFP photo/Saeed Khan)

  • Michael Sainsbury, Bangkok
  • Australia
  • April 10, 2014
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Australia’s history of dealing with asylum seekers continues to spin into a dizzying spiral of contempt. Already under fire for shutting its doors to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, the Canberra government is now in talks with Cambodia, the latest in a rollcall of poor, dysfunctional neighbors to whom it will “outsource” its so-called asylum seeker problem.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who counts as a ‘success’ every asylum seeker he can banish, last week became the second member of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Cabinet to visit Cambodia this year, following Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s whistle-stop trip to Phnom Penh in February. Seemingly peripheral to the talks was any discussion of Cambodia’s own woeful rights record, and how that may impact on the refugees Australia is unwilling to shelter.

Abbott's aggressive but election-winning asylum seeker policy is a marked departure from Australia’s once proud record of handling those forced to flee their homelands. In the 1970s, the Liberal/National Party government under Malcolm Fraser threw the doors open to over 70,000 Vietnamese escaping the communist invasion from the North. That era is now confined to history – unlike most other western democracies, Australia wants to shirk its moral and ethical obligations to help the ever increasing numbers displaced by war, political oppression and persecution.

The request for help from Cambodia, which relies on foreign aid for nearly half its annual budget, also coincides with Australia slashing billions of dollars in aid to the Southeast Asia region. Cambodia will receive money from Canberra if it does agree to take asylum seekers, but Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own record of embezzling large chunks of the state budget does little to boost confidence that the money will be spent on the welfare of those whom Australia deports to Cambodia.

But back to Australia. The citizenry’s own fears of an asylum seeker “crisis” are grossly inflated, but have been used as a cynical ploy by politicians, notably Abbott, who campaigned on an anti-asylum seeker platform, to win votes. Australia has a per capita GDP that now ranks only behind oil-rich Norway and Singapore, and has to date been relatively sheltered from the global burden of accommodating refugees.

According to figures from the UN Human Rights Commission, Australia had 10,900 asylum seekers in 2012. That year, Belgium had more than 14,000, as did Ecuador, still a developing country. France, where politicians and citizens alike fear imminent collapse due to the heavy refugee traffic, muddled along with almost 50,000 in 2012. Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, had 85,000. 

Pledges from the Abbott administration that the policy will alleviate pressure on the taxpayer to fund the wellbeing of asylum seekers runs into problems, given estimates that the outsourcing program will cost some US$2.85 billion. Papua New Guinea was reported to have received an initial US$25 million in “aid” in exchange for allowing Canberra to send human cargo to a now-notorious holding facility on Manu Island.

So turning to Cambodia will do nothing to boost Australia’s global standing. Hun Sen, who has been in power for 36 years, has a less than stellar record with asylum seekers, having returned to possible incarceration people trying to escape to Cambodia from China and Vietnam upon request of the two governments who have helped to prop him up.

His treatment of political opponents, lawyers, rights campaigners, thousands of whom have been either murdered, tortured or locked up in dark holes, should give further pause to Australia. Even the Australian Trade Department says: “A key disincentive to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been the lack of an effective judicial and legal system and a poor corporate governance environment.”

Apparently this hasn’t registered, and rights groups have accused Abbott of neglecting his obligations to international rights protocols. 

“It’s quite clear that Cambodia does not have any sort of appreciable service for refugees,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "They have a shoddy record of protecting refugees despite having ratified the refugee convention and there's very little political commitment from the Cambodian government to ensure the ongoing support or safety of refugees.

"One wonders how Australia thinks the Cambodian government would be in a better position to provide support and protection than Australia would be."

Tony Abbott and his lieutenants rail against the grubby human traffickers who take the money of people desperate to escape oppression by any means, shifting them across borders and across oceans on rickety boats. Yet they consciously move the very same human traffic, handing out cash for others to take the problem off their hands. All told, Australia’s prime minister wants to send people desperate to escape from oppressive regimes right back into the arms of another.

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