Cambodia will receive and resettle four refugees from the Pacific island nation of Nauru on Thursday under a controversial deal in which Australia paid more than US $40 million in costs and aid to the Southeast Asian country.
The four -- an Iranian couple, an Iranian man and a Rohingya Muslim man from Myanmar -- will be temporary settled in Chbar Ampov precinct of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
They were granted asylum status in Cambodia at the end of April, in a move that was condemned by human rights experts and refugee NGOs, who argued that Cambodia's own human rights record, poverty and troubled education and health care systems made it a poor choice to give refugees permanent residence.
Khiev Sopheak, spokesperson of the ministry of interior, said all the relocation expenses, including lodging and food, were to be covered by Australia, with the Cambodian government's role limited to granting them asylum under an agreement struck last September in which Australia agreed to pay Cambodia to take refugees that Canberra had turned away and housed on the Pacific Island of Nauru.
The Age, an Australian newspaper, quoted the country's Senate Estimates committee in Canberra as saying the resettlement of the refugees had cost about US 12 million and an additional $31 million in aid to Cambodia for accepting them.
Khiev Sopheak's assurances did little to quell criticism of the transaction.
"If the Australia is responsible for covering all the expenses, why they don’t simply do it in their country? Why they need to send them here?" said Suon Bunsak, general secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Actions Committee (CHRAC).
The Australian office of the global NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) also condemned the deal in a blistering statement issued in April, when the transfer plans were revealed.
“The Australian government is trying to pay Cambodia to take some refugees off its hands and its conscience,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director of HRW. “This isn’t a solution, but rather a business deal at the expense of some very vulnerable people.”
Among HRW's criticisms of Australia's policy was that the government gave asylum seekers gathered on Nauru "a misleadingly glowing socioeconomic, political, and human rights picture of Cambodia that contradicts warnings issued by the Australian government to its own citizens and reporting by human rights groups and the media."
"In addition to misrepresenting life in Cambodia, the leaflet distributed on Nauru ignores the Cambodian government’s dismal treatment of asylum seekers and refugees who are currently in the country," it said.
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Paul Eckert.