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Cambodia

Australia, Cambodia to ink controversial refugee deal

On Friday, the two nations will push forward with a highly secretive relocation agreement

Abby Seiff, Bangkok

Abby Seiff, Bangkok

Updated: September 23, 2014 07:43 PM GMT
Australia, Cambodia to ink controversial refugee deal

Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison will travel to Cambodia on Friday to sign off on a controversial deal to send refugees to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

In a statement released by the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry on Wednesday, a spokesman writes that Morrison and Cambodia’s Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, “will sign [a] Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia relating to the Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia.”

Representatives of Morrison confirmed the meeting, saying "further details will be provided following the signing of an agreement".

Asked whether information could be provided on parameters of the plan, the spokesperson referred back to Morrison's September 10 speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, where the minister briefly touched upon the deal saying the arrangement "seeks to serve the policy position that persons transferred to regional processing centres will never be resettled in Australia."

"It is important to stress that any arrangement with Cambodia would only deal with voluntary resettlement, which has never been a concern for Australia; people will have freedom of movement and work rights along with the standard entitlements of other residents of that country," he said.  

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Both countries have been silent on the details surrounding the plan, first proposed in February, which would see an undisclosed number of processed asylum seekers relocated to Cambodia in exchange for an unknown amount of foreign aid.

Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, said they remained severely opposed to the deal and the secrecy surrounding it.

“UNHCR has consistently raised our concerns about the principles behind such an agreement with officials from both governments. I don’t have details of this bilateral agreement as UNHCR is not party to it,” she said.

Rights groups and the UN have expressed grave concern over the plan, accusing Australia of shirking legal and moral obligations by offloading refugees to Cambodia.

One of Southeast Asia’s most under-developed countries, Cambodia has grown politically unstable of late and is known for its poor human rights record. In the past, the country has repatriated Uyghur and Montagnard asylum seekers to certain imprisonment, torture and even death.

The Jesuit Refugee Service has highlighted a severe lack of infrastructure, noting that the 68 refugees currently residing in Cambodia have no access to the type of necessary government services -- including schooling, job placement, language assistance, mental health services, or medical care.

"Our base line is that Australia should be looking after the refugees who sought protection and asylum [in] Australia," said Sister Denise Coughlan, JRS Cambodia's director. 

Australia has come under fire for its increasingly hardline approach to asylum seekers. In February, the same month the deal was proposed, Australia launched a campaign targeting those attempting to arrive by boat with the slogan: “No way. They will not make Australia home.”

Asylum seekers are instead sent to poorly-run offshore detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru where abuses have driven detainees to frequent self-harm and suicide.

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