Cambodia said Thursday that it would accept a small group of refugees detained by Australia before considering any larger numbers for resettlement under a bilateral deal to be inked on Friday.
Rejecting reports that the country would take in 1,000 refugees in one go, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said Cambodia would take in “three to four” refugees at first under the agreement that has been highly criticized by human rights groups and the United Nations.
“We can’t accept many of them at one time,” he told reporters. “This is just a trial. We are accepting three to four people first.”
Sar Kheng declined to provide further details about the agreement, but added that the memorandum of understanding to be adopted by the two countries on Friday would provide more information.
Sar Kheng will meet with Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Friday in Phnom Penh to sign the asylum-seekers’ resettlement agreement amid criticism by rights groups that impoverished Cambodia is ill-equipped to care for refugees and provide them a safe haven.
Until now, both governments have failed to provide details about the exact number of refugees to be resettled in Cambodia.
They also have not provided details such as how much Australia will pay Cambodia, the proportion of money that will be used to support the refugees, and whether a monitoring mechanism will be put in place to ensure the money does not fall prey to corruption, according to a statement by Cambodian Human Rights Actions Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of 21 NGOs in the country.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the two countries also have not provided information about the refugees’ access to housing, education, health care or jobs in Cambodia.
Support for refugees
Morrison previously said his government might transfer to Cambodia up to 1,000 asylum seekers originally sent by Australia to Nauru, an island country in Micronesia in the South Pacific, which has given them refugee status.
He also said the refugee transfers would be done on a voluntary basis, and Australia would offer support so the people could become self-reliant in Cambodia, according to news agency reports.
Morrison did not provide further details or any information about how much Australian would pay Cambodia under the deal.
The Australian government sends asylum-seekers who seek entry into the country by sea to Papua New Guinea and the remote Pacific island of Nauru for screening.
But Australia has refused to accept the return of those granted refugee status, claiming it is pursuing a “regional burden-sharing solution,” HRW said in a statement.
In the meantime, rights groups continue to slam Australia and Cambodia for excluding public input and undermining refugee protection in the region.
CHRAC said it was “gravely concerned that the two governments will simply push through the deal with no public scrutiny from either country.”
“This is contrary to the fundamental democratic principles of good governance respect for rule of law and due process,” its statement said.
Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Australia director, said Australia’s agreement with Cambodia would send refugees to a country with “a terrible record for protecting refugees … mired in serious human rights abuses.”
“Despite Canberra’s claims, the reality is Cambodia is both unsafe and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees who will be given one-way tickets to Phnom Penh,” she said.
Reported by Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.