Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton yesterday met Cambodia’s senior immigration official, a day after holding talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng over the A$40 million refugee resettlement scheme.
A delegation led by Dutton that also included Major General Andrew Bottrell, the “operational and tactical liaison” for the refugee transfers, held a morning meeting with General Sok Phal, director-general of the Immigration Department.
Officials, however, remained tight-lipped following the meeting. A spokeswoman for Dutton’s office said only that the Australians “were very encouraged by today’s meetings and are grateful for the high level of engagement during our visit”.
“We look forward to continuing to work together to implement the next successful stage of the [agreement].”
Kerm Sarin, head of the Refugee Department, said no details of the resettlement project were discussed at the meeting.
Leul Mekonnen, head of the International Organization for Migration in Cambodia, also met the Australian delegation yesterday. In a statement, the organisation said it was committed to “serving the needs of the refugees through the continued provision of a robust suite of settlement services”.
Since the resettlement scheme was signed on September 26, 2014, it has been cloaked in secrecy. Australia agreed to provide an additional A$40 million (currently about $28.3 million) in aid to Cambodia as part of the arrangement, and in May announced it would spend an estimated A$15.5 million more to fund resettlement services for refugees who agree to move from detention on the Pacific island of Nauru.
The meetings this week came after it was reported that one of the initial four refugees accepted – a Rohingya from Myanmar – who took up the offer of resettlement in Cambodia in June, had applied for a visa to return to his homeland.
In a statement released yesterday, Dutton’s office said that Hun Sen and Kheng were “committed to facilitating further resettlement of refugees from Nauru who have expressed interest in moving to Cambodia and to measures to accelerate the integration of refugees into Cambodian society”.
Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, however, said that Dutton’s visit was an attempt to “paper over the collapse” of the deal.
“I am sure that Cambodia is ready to accept more refugees .But the reality is that refugees are simply not interested in being transferred to Cambodia,” he said. “The experience of those transferred so far has only confirmed the view that there is no viable resettlement possible in Cambodia.”