A senior Cambodian government official has denied that refugees are to be resettled in the Kingdom from Nauru “very shortly” as Australia’s immigration minister told reporters on Wednesday during a visit to Sri Lanka.
Peter Dutton, minister for immigration and border affairs, told reporters in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, where he has signed an agreement on people smuggling, that Australia expected the imminent arrival of refugees from Nauru to Phnom Penh, according to media reports.
“We’re very keen to get a small group to go to Cambodia, which as I say will happen very shortly. Through that small group we will demonstrate that Cambodia will provide an opportunity for a fresh start for these people and their families.
“We believe that will then send a very clear message to the remaining people on Nauru that Cambodia is an appropriate option for them to consider,” he said.
“In the end, people understand now that the illegal way to Australia is closed,” he added.
But General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which is overseeing the deal, denied that any firm plans had been made to transfer refugees to Cambodia in the coming days.
“I have no update about that. We are going to make a report to the government and they will make a decision,” he said.
In what was described by refugee advocates as a “major political embarrassment” for Canberra, the Australian government issued a letter to asylum seekers on the island last month that said the first flight to Phnom Penh would depart as early as April 21.
After Cambodian officials expressed surprise at the assertion, a delegation from the Interior Ministry’s refugee department visited Nauru late last month to assess the applications of a small number of asylum seekers who had reportedly applied to resettle in Cambodia.
According to Sopheak, the delegation has yet to submit its report on the visit to Interior Minister Sar Kheng and other senior officials.
Australia signed the deal to send a potentially unlimited number of refugees who have been processed in its offshore detention facility on the Melanesian island on September 26, 2014, in exchange for an estimated $31 million in aid as well as Canberra covering the costs of the resettlement scheme.
At least four asylum seekers in the Australian detention centre have accepted cash payments of thousands of dollars and had their refugee status determinations fast-tracked in order to be eligible to come to Cambodia, according to refugee advocates.