World Refugee Day, June 20, is an appropriate moment to reflect on one particular refugee issue.
Cambodia is a country that is battling on several fronts, against poverty, displacement, unemployment and corruption. At the same time, it is still rebuilding after decades of crippling war. Yet it is now being asked by Australia to become a repository for refugees; a task it is historically ill equipped to handle.
Since Cambodia signed the Refugee Convention in 1992, more than 2,000 cases - approximately 5,000 people - have asked for its protection. These people came from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Rwanda, China, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Congo and Palestine, as well as some stateless Rohingyas. Any trouble spot over the last 20 years that caused major refugee flows meant some people arrived in Cambodia.
Of those 5,000 who have been through the system, only 68 remain in Cambodia. More than half have been resettled, others ran away, some voluntarily returned home and others were deported.
Since the mid-1990s, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has helped prepare briefs and offered social assistance and income generating possibilities, while working with UNHCR – the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – to help with resettlement.
JRS Cambodia also assists where it can with finding suitable accommodation and negotiating with landlords, finding work, providing loans to allow refugees start their own business, accompanying asylum seekers and refugees to medical appointments, enrolling children in school or arranging a tutor, providing school uniforms and books, obtaining birth certificates and providing emergency financial assistance.
However, the path toward attaining refugee status is by no means easy.
In December 2009, Cambodia took over decisions on refugee status from the UNHCR and changed the procedure. Under the new system, which is still in place today, an asylum seeker must register with the Refugee Office and is then invited to an interview. In most cases, JRS will write a submission on the asylum seeker’s behalf to explain why he or she should be recognized as a refugee.
After the interview, the Refugee Office decides whether the asylum seeker is owed protection as a refugee. If it rules against the request, the seeker can appeal within 30 days but the appeal decision is final.
While this is going on, they are given temporary permission to stay in Cambodia. They are not allowed to work but are allowed to live freely in the community.
Although Cambodia has taken positive steps towards fulfilling its obligations under the Refugee Convention, this is still a process very much in development. For example, its procedures state that a first instance decision should be made within 45 days but the reality is that most decisions take two to three years.
If and when a person is at last deemed a refugee, they are issued with a prakas from the government which states they can stay legally in Cambodia.
The prakas, however, is not accepted by many employers as a document that enables them to employ the refugee legally, nor is it accepted by banks as an identity document for opening an account, or by most vendors of motorbikes and phones.
Indeed, for those refugees who are allowed to stay, the prospects of building a new life here are limited. The government does not provide any funding or assistance to them. UNHCR provides some financial help to the most vulnerable, and funds health insurance, although many refugees complain that they have to use their own money to pay for all but the most basic medical treatment.
UNHCR also funds a vocational training program but in practice this rarely results in employment. Where employment is found, it is often low paid and refugees struggle to earn enough to pay the rent and eat three meals a day. Some run their own business selling roti on the street but this involves long days in the sun for very little profit. Others are partly dependent on relatives overseas sending them money.
With few exceptions, refugees here will tell you life is hard and there is no prospect of it getting any easier. There are language barriers which cut across many aspects of life, and refugees do not have the funds to take private language lessons.
They are theoretically entitled to a resident card, yet no refugee has ever been issued with this important identity document. To become a Cambodian citizen, one has to have lived in Cambodia for at least seven years after obtaining a resident card. As refugees are not given resident cards, they are effectively excluded.
Refugees have left their country and cannot go back. They need to belong here. For those refugees that are stateless, the ability to apply for citizenship is very important both symbolically but also to prevent them from passing their statelessness on to their children. Most of them are actively engaged in obtaining sponsorship for resettlement to other countries.
And now wealthy Australia has asked Cambodia to take foreign refugees who have tried to seek asylum on Australian shores. These victims of Australia’s harsh offshore detention and processing policies are now in Nauru, or on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, or in detention centers in Australia.
The question must be asked: why would Australia want to send refugees to Cambodia, a country that is clearly struggling to cope with the small number of refugees it already has? (This is not to mention the inevitable problems that will arise as 200,000 of its own people are now flooding back in from Thailand.)
If Australia does go ahead with the plan to offload its refugees in Cambodia, as a signatory of the refugee convention it remains morally responsible for their protection and wellbeing. The fact is, Australia is more than capable and infinitely better suited to welcome the asylum seekers who arrive seeking Australian protection.
It is unjust, unneighborly and devoid of compassion to push persecuted and vulnerable people out of the front door or off the front shore.
Sr. Denise Coghlan is an Australian Sister of Mercy who served Cambodian refugees at the Thai/Cambodia border in the 1980s and has lived and worked in Cambodia since 1992.