A proposal from the Australian Foreign Minister that Cambodia resettle refugees seeking asylum in Australia has drawn condemnation from politicians and rights groups in both countries, who say that the regional power is shirking its responsibilities to refugees by appealing to aid-dependent Cambodia.
The Cambodian government also clarified yesterday that it is not keen on taking in refugees fleeing political persecution who might seek to use the Kingdom as a “springboard” for political activities, raising questions about what protection Cambodia would actually offer to those that Australia wishes to send.
Speaking at a press briefing on Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had made the request in talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, a proposal that the government was taking “very seriously”, he said.
“In the past, Cambodians used to flee [as refugees] to other countries, but now, it is time for Cambodia to receive refugees from foreign countries,” Namhong said.
“You know that there are nowadays thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Australia, and Australia would like to see Cambodia accept some of the refugees to be settled in Cambodia.” The minister added that the number of refugees that could be resettled here would “depend” on what Australia asked for.
While details remain thin, Hun Sen spokesman Eang Sophalleth has said the request was about “a small number of legal refugees” and that Australian experts would discuss the issue with a working group chaired by Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
Bishop did not comment on the issue specifically, and the Australian Embassy has pointed journalists to an official statement that says only that the ministers discussed cooperation on people smuggling under an international forum.
The request comes at a politically sensitive time domestically for the Australian government following the death of a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker last week during protests at a detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Australia, which has pledged $85 million in aid to Cambodia this year, has been roundly criticised by rights groups for its tough stance on asylum seekers, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, who often travel on rickety boats from Indonesia to seek asylum on its shores.
Hundreds have drowned in recent years, and any asylum seekers that arrive by boat in Australia without a visa are now sent to Papua New Guinea for processing. Even if proved a genuine refugee, they are only allowed to settle in PNG, not Australia.
“[Australia] wants to hand over its moral responsibility to Cambodia; I don’t think that’s acceptable,” Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua said yesterday.
“Australia has to settle its own moral responsibility as a nation that we consider a democracy that respects human rights, [and] as a nation that is well-developed and has in the past been very generous with refugees [including from Cambodia].”
Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens party senator and immigration spokeswoman, said that Australia was “refusing” to protect refugees despite having the financial ability to do so.
“Sending refugees to Cambodia is neither a sustainable or reasonable response to the fact that people seek safety from war and terror by coming to Australia,” Hanson-Young stated in an email.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said that Cambodia wished to help Australia “as a friend of humanity” but would, however, require assistance from the international community to help successfully resettle refugees.
“We don’t want the world to see Cambodia as a springboard for political refugees. We support and try to preserve our neutrality,” he said.
But Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said this position was one reason why Cambodia had a “horrible” refugee rights record.
“We don’t have the financial capacity but we also don’t have the political will [for] refugees who need protection, especially when most refugees are of a political nature,” he said.