Four refugees formerly detained by Australia on the small Pacific island of Nauru arrived in Cambodia on Thursday amid accusations by rights groups that the group was being dumped in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation in exchange for financial aid.
The four—an Iranian couple, an Iranian man, and a Rohingya Muslim man from Myanmar—had previously sought asylum in Australia but were denied entry, being held instead for months in a camp for refugees unwelcome in the country.
They were granted asylum in Cambodia at the end of April in a move slammed by human rights groups and refugee NGOs who have argued that Cambodia’s own rights record and poverty make the country unsuitable for permanent resettlement.
Landing in Phnom Penh on Thursday, the four were rushed from the airport under tight security and quickly moved to temporary quarters in Chbar Ampov, outside the capital, where Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said the group will be supported at Australia’s expense.
“Australia will pay even for the cost of guarding them,” Khieu Sopheak told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We are responsible for only one thing—to transport them from [the airport] to their holding place,” he said.
After first refusing to take part in the resettlement scheme, the four had volunteered to be moved after a letter from Australia’s Immigration Ministry circulated in Nauru promising “villa-style accommodation” in Cambodia and large payments of cash for participants, The Phnom Penh Post said in a June 4 report.
The refugees “were then flown secretly from Nauru to Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory” in early May and housed in a temporary facility near the airport, the paper said.
Others were turned back
Rights groups have criticized the controversial deal in which Australia has promised to pay more than U.S. $40 million in costs and aid to Cambodia, noting also that Cambodia has forced asylum-seekers from China and Vietnam back home.
“Uyghur and Montagnard refugees have been rejected by Cambodia,” Am Sam Art, an activist from the Cambodian rights groups Licadho, told RFA.
“So we can see that Cambodia considers foreign [financial] assistance to be more important than refugees’ freedom,” he said.
“Australia is throwing tens of millions of dollars at Cambodia to take these refugees,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, agreed in a statement on Wednesday.
“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society,” Robertson said.
“These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.