Australia's Deal to Resettle Refugees in Cambodia Faces Opposition

Education in Cambodia is still at low levels

Education in Cambodia is still at low levels. Photo by Ahmad Zikri Mohamad Zuki, Copyright @Demotix (2/9/2014)

A proposed refugee deal between Australia and Cambodia to resettle Australia's successful asylum seekers has copped lots of criticism. It is part of Australia's controversial offshore processing that involves Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island detention centres.

In February 2014 Human Rights Watch wrote to Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop before her visit to Cambodia expressing its concerns about human rights in that country:

Basic rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association are under regular attack, while corruption is rampant, severely affecting the enjoyment of basic economic and social rights by a very poor citizenry.

We… urge you to call for an end to the general ban on demonstrations, while raising concerns over other restrictions on freedom of expression and association, as well as land grabs, corruption and improper ruling party interference in the judiciary, police, electoral commission, and other key national institutions.

They raised their concerns about the lack of an independent legal system again in May.

In April the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, Phil Robertson, commented on the worrying developments:

One wonders how Australia thinks the Cambodian government would be in a better position to provide support and protection than Australia would be.

The website of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had similar issues in May:

Despite democratic freedoms in Cambodia, there are periodic reports of intimidation and political violence. Human rights concerns continue to be raised in relation to land disputes between residents and companies pursuing economic development.

DFAT estimated a Gross Domestic Product per capita in 2012 of US$934. The CIA World Factbook ranks Cambodia 183 out of 229 countries for purchasing power per person. Both agencies are concerned about ‘child sex tourism’. The CIA notes:

Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking; Cambodian men, women, and children migrate to countries within the region for legitimate work but are subsequently subjected to sex trafficking, domestic servitude, debt bondage, or forced labor; the inability to understand formal obligations, read contracts, or pay processing fees, and inadequate government regulatory oversight renders some Cambodian migrant workers vulnerable to such exploitation; poor Cambodian children are subject to forced labor, including forced begging in Thailand and Vietnam; Cambodian and ethnic Vietnamese women and girls are trafficked from rural areas to urban centers for sexual exploitation; Cambodian men are the main exploiters of child prostitutes, but men from other Asian countries, the US, and Europe travel to Cambodia for child sex tourism

The Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 69 refugees and 18 asylum seekers were residing in Cambodia in mid 2013.

In Cambodia is no place to resettle the refugees Australia does not want, Susan Metcalfe, the author of The Pacific Solution, has argued that:

Dumping refugees in under-resourced, aid dependent countries can have disastrous consequences for all involved. Only a well developed resettlement program, coupled with a supportive and safe environment, can address the long term needs of both the refugee and the resettlement country.

Vivian Tan of UNHCR regional office in Bangkok has also expressed concerns recently.

In an interview on ABC Radio National on 22 May, Julie Bishop defended the government’s plans:

Ms Bishop said that Cambodia has displayed a willingness to accept asylum seekers from Nauru and are fulfilling their obligations as members of the Bali Process.

‘These countries are all members of the Bali Process and membership of the Bali process means you commit to regional solutions and that is what Cambodia is offering to do,’ she said.

‘They are talking about a very small number of people. They are very keen to have people working. They are looking for people who are able-bodied who would be able to contribute to Cambodian society.’

‘It is a country with a great ambition to move from being a poor country to a developing country to being a developed country.’

Many of the initial reactions on twitter were critical of both the current conservative Tony Abbott government and its Labor predecessors now led by Bill Shorten in opposition:

An official announcement is expected soon.

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