The Cambodian government said Monday that it has agreed to study a request by Australia to accept some of the continent’s asylum seekers but civil society groups said the proposal should be rejected because of Cambodia’s inadequate immigration laws and ongoing human rights violations.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s administration came to power last year partly based on his vow to stop a flood of asylum seekers from Indonesia, and over the weekend Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen if his country could take on some of the intercepted migrants.
Australia already maintains detention centers in the South Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, but has come under criticism by international rights groups and the United Nations for unsafe conditions at the facilities.
On Monday, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Ministry of Interior would study Australia’s request to house some of the migrants in Cambodia, which itself saw an exodus of refugees fleeing war and starvation during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.
“Cambodia and Australia are working together for good cooperation and … Samdech [Hun Sen] has asked the Ministry of Interior to study the case before responding to the request to accept asylum seekers,” Phay Siphan said.
The government will come to a decision based on humanitarian needs and its ability to ensure that no refugees seek asylum for economic reasons or to use Cambodia as a base for a campaign against a foreign power, he said. Cambodia will also refuse entry to political asylum seekers.
“For these reasons, Samdech has ordered the Ministry of Interior to study the case because we have no experience allowing asylum seekers into our country yet,” Phay Siphan said.
“Right now, we are at a study stage and have not made any decision.”
Phay Siphan called on the United Nations to take a greater role in providing assistance to the asylum seekers, though he did not elaborate.
“However, Cambodia and Australia are partners. We are considering our ability to accept the asylum seekers,” he said.
Cambodia ‘not ready’
Rights groups on Monday criticized Cambodia’s consideration of the request, saying the country lacks the expertise to deal with asylum seekers and must also address its own problems, including a seven-month-old political deadlock following disputed elections and a lagging rights record.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for nongovernmental organization Licadho, told RFA that Cambodia is “not ready to accept any asylum seekers yet.”
“Cambodia hasn’t effectively implemented immigration and nationality laws yet,” he said.
“We need better laws before we can accept immigrants.”
Am Sam Ath added that Cambodia is “still facing human rights violations” and an ongoing political stalemate between Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) following disputed elections in July last year.
He also slammed Cambodia’s history of repatriating asylum seekers to their countries of origin.
Also on Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch took the Australian government to task for ignoring Cambodia’s rights record for its own ends.
“The Australian government should be pressing Cambodia on human rights issues … but instead [it] appears to be holding hands with the Cambodian government and actually asking for Cambodia’s help for Australia to commit rights abusing actions,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the group’s Asia division, told RFA.
He called the request a move to “essentially ignore the obligations of Australia to protect and receive refugees under the Refugee Convention,” he said, noting that both countries are signatories of the charter.
“What we have here is a connivance between two governments to help each other evade international human rights responsibilities, and it’s a very shameful day for Australia-Cambodia bilateral relations.”
Robertson said Cambodia is already an impoverished country that lacks the necessary services to provide for asylum seekers and has frequently repatriated them to countries where they may face persecution, “so it’s hard to understand why the Australian government thinks that Cambodia would be a safe place to send refugees.”
He said it appeared Australia was “shopping to the highest bidder” a contract for a country to take refugees that it doesn’t want.
“It looks like Cambodia may be ultimately offered quite a bit of money by Australia to take refugees and one wonders what this is going to mean for the larger issue of refugee protection in Cambodia,” he said.
While Australia faces a small number of asylum seekers in comparison to other countries, its policy for accepting them has led to a heated debate in the region.
Last week, at the country’s Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea, one asylum seeker was killed and around 80 injured during a riot, according to a report by Reuters news agency.
The report quoted the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has said the Manus camp should be shut because it fails to provide "safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention."
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia—one of Cambodia’s largest aid donors—has provided the country more than $329 million Australian dollars (U.S. $297 million) over the past four years.
Australia was also quick to recognize Hun Sen's election victory, despite claims of voting irregularities.
Reported and translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.