Four refugees previously held by Australia on the Pacific island of Nauru have finally touched down on Cambodian soil, making them the first to officially arrive as part of a controversial refugee deal signed between Australia and the Kingdom last year.
A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration confirmed the arrival.
The refugees arrived on a Malaysia Airlines flight this morning, as a scrum of dozens of journalists gathered outside. Minutes after the flight landed, a van believed to be carrying the refugees left the VIP terminal at the airport with its curtains pulled shut.
The refugees had been flown secretly from Nauru to Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, in early May and have since been housed at an immigration facility near the airport there.
According to Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak, the refugees were slated to be immediately taken to temporary accommodation “arranged for them with funding from Australia” upon their arrival.
After months of refusing to play party to the deal, which was signed last September, the four volunteered for resettlement after a letter was distributed in the Nauru detention centre in which the Australian Immigration Ministry offered large cash payments and numerous other inducements, including “villa-style” accommodation, to those who agreed to go immediately.
The deal itself has been lambasted by critics in both countries, with some accusing Australia of failing to uphold its obligations under international law, while also noting that Cambodia’s own track record of accepting refugees is spotty at best.
“Australia is throwing tens of millions of dollars at Cambodia to take these refugees, despite Cambodia’s recent record of ejecting asylum seekers from Vietnam and its threat to throw out even more if some other country doesn’t agree to resettle them,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said in an email today.
“Cambodia’s recent treatment of Montagnards from Vietnam shows Cambodia’s true colors when it comes to meeting its refugee obligations under international law,” he continued.
“Cambodian officials have recently forced dozens of Montagnards back to Vietnam without any chance to make asylum claims. And even for 13 Montagnards that Cambodia has recognized as refugees, it refuses to grant them permanent asylum, and says they must be resettled to third countries or face forced return as well.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE