Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Nearly three months after the Cambodian government let slip that it had been approached by Australia to house refugees, Australian authorities have remained silent on the cost, scope, and timeline – with even members of the government saying they have yet to receive any information.
Late last month, Cambodia announced it had agreed “in principle” to Australia’s request – which came during a February meeting between the foreign ministers of both countries.
“In principle, yes, [we have agreed],” Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong confirmed this week. “But we are still studying.”
While it has been rumoured that Australia will pay Cambodia $40m to house anywhere from 100 to 1,200 refugees, Kuong said he had no details on the scheme. It is almost certain to come with a hefty price tag. Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres on Nauruand Papua New Guinea cost more than $1bn last year alone, according to an Amnesty International report released in December 2013.
It is unfortunate that, instead of playing a leading role in a genuine regional solution, Australia is looking to one of the poorest countries in our region to be its next refugee dumping ground.
In the latest Australian budget released Tuesday, the Customs and Border Protection Service is projected to grow from $28m in 2013-14 to $85m two years later.
Asked whether a price had been set, spokeswoman Kerri Griffiths for the minister for Immigration and Border Protection declined to comment on specifics.
“Australia has no further update on the status of our discussions with Cambodia than what was provided by the minister after his recent visit to Phnom Penh,” she said. “The government is continuing its discussions on these issues and welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date.”
‘Refugee dumping ground’
The Australian Embassy in Cambodia referred questions to the Department of Foreign Affairs – which referred questions back to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Minister Scott Morrison’s office also declined to answer questions concerning the number of refugees involved, the timeline of the plan, or address criticism directed at the proposal.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, immigration spokeswoman for Australia’s Greens party, said the lack of transparency was troubling.
“The Australian government is being very secretive about the deal, but we know from previous experience that the safety and welfare of refugees will not be a priority,” she wrote in an email Monday.
“It is unfortunate that, instead of playing a leading role in a genuine regional solution, Australia is looking to one of the poorest countries in our region to be its next refugee dumping ground.”
Numerous rights groups as well as UN officials have accused Australia of breaching international conventions as the wealthy nation increasingly seeks to outsource detention centres and refugee resettlement to some of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries.
|Asylum seekers turned back by Australia sit in an immigration holding area [Reuters]|
In February, just days before Australia approached Cambodia, one asylum seeker was killed after riots broke out at the Manus Island detention centre. In footage of the riot, Papua New Guinean guards can be seen beating men who are not fighting back and firing weapons into crowds of unarmed asylum seekers.
“The Australian government has breached its legal responsibility towards refugees and committed grave ethical blunders in its application of offshore processing procedures,” the Jesuit Refugee Center said in a statement last week, which accused the country of undermining the UN’s refugee framework.
Joyce Chia, a senior research associate at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, agreed. Not only has the Australian government breached international conventions, but its actions are actively undermining rule of law in other countries, she told Al Jazeera.
“We’ve seen the judiciary diminished [in Papua New Guinea and Nauru] as a direct result…The impact will certainly be one of eroding human rights and rule of law more generally. It’s a very detrimental impact, they should be encouraging these nations to improve human rights,” said Chia.
Cashing in on desperation
It's a flawed policy, Cambodia is a very poor country. The conditions in Cambodia are not suitable for any type of long-term resettlement.
“It’s a flawed policy, Cambodia is a very poor country. The conditions in Cambodia are not suitable for any type of long-term resettlement,” said Chia. “But it’s more concerning what Australia’s impact on the region is. It appears we are using our muscle … and as a large financial contributor of aid [that seems to be the carrot], it’s a clear exchange.”
Cambodia’s refugee dealings have come under fire in the past. In 2009, 20 Uighur asylum seekers were shipped back to almost certain imprisonment or death; two days later, China awarded Cambodia with $1.2bn in aid. Previously, Motagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam have also been sent back.
Currently, there are fewer than 70 refugees in Cambodia and only 18 asylum seekers, according to UNHCR statistics. Processing can take years, and in an extremely poor country, social services are nil. There are no translators, no legal aid, no housing, no schooling, no job placement – let alone integration assistance – provided by the government to refugees.
But Australia has made it clear that desperation or need alone “is not a ticket to a first–class economy”, as Minister Morrison put it last month.
These days, when you click on the refugee section of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection website, the first words that pop up are these: “No way. They will not make Australia home.”