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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An affront to human rights

Protesters gather in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday
Protesters gather in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday before the signing of a controversial refugee deal between the countries. Heng Chivoan

An affront to human rights

As recently as January, Australia denounced Cambodia for its poor human rights record at a United Nations human rights hearing. Now, just eight months later, Australia has turned a blind eye to this record by signing a refugee deal with Cambodia that raises serious human rights concerns.

As the world faces an unprecedented number of refugees, Australia is dodging its responsibility to provide a safe and dignified resettlement process despite its high capacity to do so. Instead, it has entered into an agreement to “offload” refugees arriving in Australia to Cambodia, a country plagued by human rights abuses. Australia will provide Cambodia an additional $35 million in aid in exchange for the deal, but it cannot be guaranteed that this money will reach those that need it most.

While both Australia and Cambodia are signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the rights of refugees in both countries are regularly violated. Australia has become increasingly irresponsible regarding its treatment of refugees. Mandatory detention, offshore processing and a refusal to settle those found to be genuine refugees have demonstrated Canberra’s policy of deterrence. The deal with Cambodia fits perfectly within this policy and contradicts the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Cambodia also has a poor record regarding the treatment of refugees. In December 2009, Cambodia breached a fundamental element of the Refugee Convention, non-refoulement – a principle which requires signatories to not return or expel refugees to the persecuting state – by returning 20 Muslim Uighurs fleeing ethnic violence to China. Others who migrate here, including Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmer from South Vietnam entitled to citizenship, struggle to access their rights in practice. This demonstrates the problems of the immigration process and Cambodia’s failure to support those seeking asylum.

Aside from violations against refugees and breaches of the Refugee Convention, Cambodia is facing countless other human rights issues. Impunity is rampant, freedom of expression is threatened, minorities are discriminated against and land rights are ignored. Corruption is endemic and politically motivated attacks are common. This is compounded by the fact that 20.5 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and many others earn only fractionally more, according to Where Have All the Poor Gone?, a 2013 World Bank report. Cambodia is clearly an unacceptable place for a wealthy country to offload refugees, particularly as it cannot guarantee the rights of arriving refugees.

The “pilot program” by which Cambodia will initially accept only four to five refugees signifies that the country is aware of its limited capacity. It is not clear who will monitor this pilot program or assess whether the situation for refugees is appropriate. It is clear that if the program is to be monitored by Cambodia and/or Australia alone, it will be subject to biased assessment and lack international scrutiny.

Recent media reports suggest that refugees will be forced to relocate outside of Phnom Penh once they have mastered basic Khmer. They will receive 12 months of guaranteed assistance once relocated, but it is likely that this will be inadequate considering the trauma that many refugees have endured and the time required to find meaningful employment. This is despite the Refugee Convention stipulating that refugees have “the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory”.

While 87 per cent of the world’s refugees are already hosted by developing countries, Australia is circumventing its international obligations. Refugees arriving on Australian shores have been given a choice to either resettle in Cambodia or to remain on Nauru for a further five years. And it has been made clear that they will never resettle in Australia. This is having a devastating impact on already traumatised refugees; five refugees on Nauru have sewn their mouths closed and two have attempted suicide since receiving the news. For those who are resettled in Cambodia, the series of violations is set to continue.

Australia and Cambodia both have a duty to respect their obligations, not only under the Refugee Convention but other human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The deal will in all likelihood result in breaches of these international human rights standards and should be subject to public scrutiny. The rights and wellbeing of the refugees involved should be the prime consideration for both countries.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights.

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