Updated at 12:25 p.m. ET on 2014-06-04
An international human rights group said Tuesday that Cambodia cannot be trusted in upholding the rights of refugees to be resettled in the country from Australia under a controversial bilateral deal.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch questioned Cambodia’s ability to safely resettle asylum seekers bound for Australia even after the government gave a reassurance Tuesday that it would only accept refugees who voluntarily agree to come to the country.
“There are major concerns because it’s quite clear that Cambodia would not be able to provide the same level of protection or services for any refugees that were transferred from Australia,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Cambodia is a very poor country. There are a number of refugees who are already there … and many of them are close to destitute. They don’t have work authorization and they have a real struggle to survive,” he said.
Robertson also criticized Cambodia’s “major problem with failing to effectively protect refugee rights in the past,” citing the country’s forced deportation in 2009 to China of 20 ethnic Uyghurs who had already been deemed “persons of concern” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) after they fled Xinjiang following protests that were brutally suppressed by authorities.
He also referred to Cambodia’s forced return of activists representing the Khmer Krom—who are ethnically similar to Cambodians and say they face persecution in Vietnam—into the hands of Vietnamese security services.
“The Australian government should be ashamed for proposing this,” he said.
“They should take on the responsibilities of protecting refugees in line with their own commitments to the refugee convention and not try to transfer responsibility to another country.”
Human Rights Watch made the criticism as Phnom Penh and Canberra appeared close to clinching an agreement to take refugees bound for Australia, which is stemming the tide of asylum seekers arriving in the continent under a hard-line policy.
The deal could see up to 1,000 refugees settled in impoverished Cambodia, some reports have suggested.
Australia at present denies would-be refugees resettlement by sending them to camps in neighboring Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has told the Australian media that refugees would not be forced to go to Cambodia and that they would be required to fill out consent forms and personal data forms and submit them to immigration officials before being permitted to resettle.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Kuong on Tuesday confirmed the statement from Hor Namhong, who is also Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister, suggesting that the two countries were close to signing an agreement.
“As the deputy prime minister stated, when the refugee deal is reached, Cambodia will only accept those refugees who have volunteered to come to our country,” he told RFA.
“Those who don’t want to come, we won’t accept.”
When asked whether Cambodia would be able to guarantee their protection, Kuy Kuong said that the government is “aware what we should and shouldn’t do.”
“We are in the process of discussing the issue,” he said.
Kuy Kuong declined to comment on whether the Cambodian government had been promised financial incentives by Australia in response to agreeing to resettle the country’s refugees.
“I don’t have any information about that,” he said.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s administration came to power last year partly based on his vow to stop a flood of asylum seekers through Indonesia, and during a visit in February, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen if his country could take on some of the intercepted migrants.
Australia has come under criticism by international rights groups and the United Nations for unsafe conditions at the detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
‘Final stage’ of talks
According to a report by the Sydney Morning Herald, Hor Namhong said Tuesday that talks with Australia were in the “final stage” after authorities in Phnom Penh sent the Abbott administration a draft of the agreement.
He said a memorandum of understanding and operational guidelines would be put in place but declined to give details.
“The refugees' permanent and voluntary resettlement in Cambodia is fundamentally undertaken on the humanitarian spirit,” Hor Namhong told the Herald.
He said Cambodia’s authorities will investigate the backgrounds of refugees Canberra plans to send to the country and will insist that any who come to settle be approved as genuine asylum seekers under the 1951 Convention on refugees.
Hor Namhong also welcomed any support from humanitarian organizations—including the UNHCR, which has only a two-person office in the country—in caring for the refugees.
Cambodia, which itself saw an exodus of refugees fleeing war and starvation during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, has said that the government would reach a decision based on humanitarian needs and its ability to ensure that no refugees seek asylum for economic reasons.
Officials have also said that they will refuse entry to political asylum seekers and to those who might use the country as a base for a campaign against a foreign power.
Australia has not made public any details about the plan, which has drawn criticism from rights groups, nongovernmental organizations, and Cambodia’s opposition parties.
In a statement last month, Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, slammed the rights record of Cambodia, where she said freedom of expression, assembly, and association “are under regular attack” and corruption is “rampant,” adding that matters in the country’s courts are “decided by bribes and political influence, not law and facts.”
“[This] raise[s] serious questions about how refugees sent to Cambodia will be treated,” she said, adding that many questions remain unanswered about where they would be housed in the country, which ministry would oversee their care, and whether they would be free to integrate as they please.
“Australia should help Cambodia become a rights-respecting, safe and stable place—but the best way is by holding the government to account for its abuses while providing capacity-building assistance.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.