High-level bureaucrats from Australia have visited several sites in Cambodia over the past two months to view properties where refugees from its overseas detention centre on Nauru could be relocated, the Post has learned.
Separate sources, who cannot be named because of the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations, have this week confirmed that land in Preah Sihanouk province has been assessed by the officials.
Properties in Phnom Penh have also been visited by the delegation, one source said.
The proposed deal between the two countries has been shrouded in secrecy since it was first made public by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong after a meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in February. Last week, the Post reported that a deal was expected “imminently”.
Greg Kelly, who previously served as co-manager of the regional support office of the international people-smuggling forum known as the Bali Process, took up a position at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh last Wednesday.
The move coincided with 10 new officials being appointed to the Ministry of Interior’s General Department for Immigration in preparation for the resettlement scheme.
Craig Chittick, Australia’s ambassador for people smuggling issues, had a reservation made by the Australian Embassy for four rooms at a Phnom Penh hotel on Wednesday, but the reservation had been cancelled by Tuesday.
Amanda Vanstone, a former Australian immigration minister, also visited Phnom Penh this week, although the Australian Embassy and Vanstone both on Wednesday said her visit was not connected to the refugee resettlement scheme.
One source with knowledge of the discussions said that the Australian working group had hoped that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) would be signed last week, but the Cambodian side had requested more time to evaluate the details. Another meeting had been scheduled for Monday to discuss the MoU, they added.
Another source said that a “master contractor”, probably a company with political connections to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, would be given a role to hire “service providers”, such as health and real estate firms.
Australian Embassy officials have ignored several written requests for comment over the past week.
Son Chhay, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party chief whip, said he had been told that Preah Sihanouk province had been considered as a possible location to house some of the refugees.
“I heard [two months ago] that they might be put on one of the islands off Sihanoukville, but I wasn’t able to [independently] confirm if this is true,” he said. “Normally, they would look for land owned by a business connected to a government member, encouraged by the Council for the Development of Cambodia, so they could profit from it.
“As you know, all of the islands have been sold to their associates, including [Cambodian-Australian dual national] Kith Meng. The hope would be that they could develop one of the islands. I think the government has turned away from that now, and they might be looking at land on the mainland.”
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, referred questions to the Foreign Ministry. Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong confirmed the deal was yet to be signed.
“We are still in the process of discussion. We haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “Since nothing is official, we cannot say anything specifically.”
Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service said that while she opposes the deal in principle, if it went ahead, a great effort must be made to integrate the refugees into Cambodian society.
“This of course means they need proper documentation for residence, for right to work and identity. I am totally opposed to any institutionalised form of accommodation,” she said.