After months of delay, Cambodian government officials will finally arrive this week at the South Pacific island country of Nauru, home to Australian-run detention centres that hold close to 1,000 asylum seekers.
Many of those people, once they are processed as refugees, could be eligible for resettlement in the Kingdom under a controversial scheme inked by Australian and Cambodian officials in September.
An initial “trial” group of refugees was meant to be sent here by the end of 2014, but not a single person has made the journey.
While progress has been slower than expected, the visit of officials from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Nauru raises the prospect that transfers under the “voluntary” scheme could soon begin.
Before choosing to be resettled, refugees are meant to be briefed on Cambodian culture and living conditions by government officials, who are being flown to Nauru on Canberra’s bill.
Suong Sok, a senior official at the Interior Ministry’s refugee office, yesterday confirmed that the Cambodian delegation had left last week. He could not provide further details but said it was a high-level visit.
Immigration Department chief Sok Phal declined to comment, directing questions to the Foreign Ministry, which in turn told a reporter to speak to the Interior Ministry, whose spokesman could not be reached.
Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, yesterday confirmed that the IOM’s chief of mission in Cambodia was also on the way to Nauru.
“IOM will be an observer during discussions there but not involved in direct talks” between Australian, Cambodian and Nauruan government officials, he said.
In October, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that the government would present “the reality of Cambodia, not the advertising” to refugees when officials visited Nauru.
“This is not a trip to advertise [and] to attract tourists to Cambodia; this trip is to tell them about Cambodia,” he said at the time.
Under a memorandum of understanding that formalised the deal, Cambodia will only accept processed refugees that voluntarily agree to relocate.
All resettlement costs will be met by Australia, with an extra $35 million in aid also given to Cambodia as a sweetener.
While Australia-based refugee advocates continue to insist that it is unlikely anyone on Nauru will decide to take the Cambodia option, the Refugee Action Coalition said yesterday that some interest had been shown.
“I did hear that late last year, two single men asked about going to Cambodia but [they] were told then that it was not possible” as Cambodia was not yet ready to receive refugees, said Ian Rintoul, the RAC’s spokesman.
As of December 31, there were 895 people in Nauru’s detention centres. According to Rintoul, some 140 processed refugees are living in Nauruan communities.
The bilateral Australia-Cambodia scheme has been condemned by the UN refugee agency and human rights groups in both countries.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA