Refugees have been secretly flown from Nauru to an undisclosed location in Australia, where they will stay until their resettlement in Cambodia is approved by the Phnom Penh government, according to refugees still on the Pacific island.
Four asylum seekers – a Rohingya from Myanmar and three Iranians – are believed to have applied to be in the first group of refugees to accept resettlement here as part of the multimillion-dollar deal signed by the two countries in September.
The reports came as Australia yesterday issued its annual budget, which showed that it had slashed funding to other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar; Cambodia’s aid budget, however, was left intact.
An Iranian refugee on Nauru, who has communicated with the group of refugees believed to be in Australia, said the group had said they were travelling to Australia.
“They just disappeared for a while and they said that they are going to Cambodia, but they are in Australia now and wait[ing] for the flight to take them to Cambodia,” the refugee said.
Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said he had received similar reports from refugee sources on Nauru and was seeking to verify them, but had been unable to do so.
“Most likely they have gone either to Darwin or Brisbane… If they were in a routine flight, as it seems they were, they would almost certainly have gone [to Brisbane],” he said.
“In either city, [Australia] could be using motels [to house them], which is what they usually do when they want to keep people away from prying eyes.”
Australian immigration officials yesterday declined to respond to questions about the claims, saying their office was swamped due to the release of the national budget. The reports of the flights could not be independently confirmed.
Kerm Sarin of the Ministry of Interior’s Refugee Department, said he had not been informed about the transfer of refugees.
“We don’t have any official information about this,” he said, adding that a government delegation that visited Nauru in late April to assess the refugees’ applications had not yet submitted its report to the government, after which a decision would be made by senior officials.
If the reports of refugees being transferred to Australia ahead of their resettlement in Cambodia were true, it could irritate officials in Phnom Penh, who said they were “shocked” to learn last month that Australian immigration officials had told asylum seekers on Nauru they could fly to Cambodia as early as April 20, without their knowledge.
Those who have accepted resettlement are believed to have been offered large cash inducements amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, which critics have labelled a form of bribery.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, could not be reached.
In Australia’s budget for 2015, published yesterday, hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending on offshore processing and resettlement, including in Cambodia, were revealed.
A total of A$389.6 million ($310.6 million) will be spent on “implementing refugee resettlement arrangements” in Cambodia, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and on “removal arrangements” for those determined not to be refugees. Almost a third of the funds will be spent on new infrastructure.
Cambodia was also promised an additional $31 million in aid if the deal went ahead.
Misha Coleman, executive officer of the Australia Churches Refugee Task Force, said in a statement that the new money was part of a “budget bonanza” for bad refugee policy.
“Cambodia is one of the few countries that has escaped an aid budget cut, while neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and [Myanmar] were all hit with 40 [per cent] budget cuts. I must say that the Cambodia government are great negotiators though,” she said.
“By agreeing to take up to 10 refugees from Australia and Nauru each year for four years, the aid budget provided nearly [A]$40 million. That’s $1 million [per] refugee, and that was only the original agreement; we’re now paying even more on top of the original deal”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA