Two Muslim Rohingya refugees have volunteered to resettle in Cambodia as part of a controversial deal in which Australia has promised to pay more than U.S. $40 million in costs and aid to the Southeast Asian country for taking refugees off its hands, a Cambodian government official said Tuesday.
The news comes two days after another Rohingya Muslim refugee, who had resettled in Cambodia under the agreement in June, returned to his home in Myanmar after authorities in that country issued him a passport, said Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
Late last April, Cambodia had granted the man, who is in his 20s, asylum along with an Iranian couple and an Iranian man who initially had sought asylum in Australia but were denied entry. Instead, they were held for months on the small Pacific island of Nauru in a camp for refugees unwelcome in the country. The four settled in Cambodia in June.
The two other Rohingya refugees held on Nauru will join the others who have settled in the Meanchey district of the capital Phnom Penh, Khieu Sopheak said, but didn’t give a time for their arrival.
“We have a nice villa for them [which] will be a training center for teaching Khmer culture, language and customs, so they can integrate into Cambodian society,” he said.
As for the Rohingya man who voluntarily left the country on Sunday, Khieu Sopheak said he wasn’t sure about his status because he was traveling alone without immigration officers as escorts.
He wanted to return because he missed his home, although he had previously left it in hopes of resettling in Australia, Khieu Sopheak said.
“He saw other people fleeing from Myanmar, so he followed them and ended up in Nauru,” he said. “He was remorseful when he couldn’t settle in Australia.”
The Cambodia government did not pay for the refugee to return home, he added.
Myanmar’s government views the Rohingya, who number roughly 1.1 million people in the country, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as “Bengalis,” although many have lived there for generations.
The country’s western Rakhine state is the traditional home of the Rohingya, thousands of whom in recent years have fled persecution they say they have suffered in the Buddhist-dominated country.
Not fully integrated
Am Sam An, senior investigator with the domestic rights group Licadho, said he is concerned about the Cambodian government’s decision to accept more refugees because the current ones have not yet been fully integrated into society.
The Rohingya man who asked to return to Myanmar faced difficulties living in Cambodia, he said.
“We are concerned that the two new refugees might ask to return [to Myanmar],” he said.
Am Sam An also criticized the Cambodian government for giving favorable treatment to the Rohingya refugees from Nauru because of the money Cambodia is receiving from Australia while leaders have not helped Christian Montagnards from next-door Vietnam who have sought refuge in the country from political and religious repression at home.
Cambodian authorities maintain that the nearly 200 ethnic Montagnards who have crossed into Cambodia from Vietnam’s Central Highlands since late last year are not political refugees, but farmers who have entered the country for economic reasons.
Human rights groups and refugee NGOs have slammed Cambodia’s deal with Australia, arguing that the Southeast Asian nation’s own human rights record, poverty and troubled education and health care systems make it a poor choice to give refugees permanent residence.
Under the U.S. $40 million deal, Australia pays all the relocation expenses, including lodging and food, of the refugees that Cambodia accepts from Nauru.
Reported by Yeang Sotheameta and Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.