Ahead of the likely arrival of the first group of refugees from Nauru under Cambodia’s agreement with Australia, Human Rights Watch yesterday called on Canberra to withdraw from the planned resettlement scheme.
“The Australian government is trying to pay Cambodia to take some refugees off its hands and its conscience,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at HRW. “This isn’t a solution, but rather a business deal at the expense of some very vulnerable people.”
Four refugees have so far applied for the resettlement scheme – three Iranians, and one Rohingya from Myanmar – but officials in Phnom Penh have not yet approved their resettlement, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said yesterday.
It had not yet been determined whether the applicants were “legal”, he said, because it was not clear whether they had already received positive asylum assessments from Australia’s Immigration Department.
Prior to the applications for resettlement from four refugees, Australian immigration officials tried to tempt some to move by distributing a letter on Nauru that misrepresented life in Cambodia, which critics said smacked of desperation.
Refugee advocates have said the four’s claims were “fast-tracked” after they showed an interest in taking up the Australian government’s offer of cash and other benefits for being the first to relocate, in apparent contravention of the agreement between the two governments.
“This is just our initial information; we have not yet made a decision. There are four refugees that have applied, but we are still assessing whether or not it is legal, so we cannot make any announcement as we have not decided yet,” Kheng said.
Representatives of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton did not respond to a request for comment.
A charter flight is expected to be scheduled to fly the refugees from the Pacific island of Nauru, where they have been held in an Australian-funded detention centre, in the coming weeks.
“Australia has already offered what is effectively a bribe to Cambodia to take refugees, and now there are reports that it is effectively doing the same with desperate asylum seekers in Nauru,” Pearson said. “This would be the Abbott government’s latest attempt to offload all responsibility for people who have fled war, ethnic cleansing, and atrocities.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE