The first group of refugees to accept resettlement under a heavily criticised deal between Cambodia and Australia is scheduled to arrive in Phnom Penh this morning, according to government officials.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told the Post yesterday that the four refugees – an ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar and three Iranians – “will arrive tomorrow morning, via a Malaysia Airlines flight”.
A senior immigration official, who asked not to be named, confirmed the plans.
“The refugees will leave Darwin Airport on Wednesday and arrive in Kuala Lumpur at dawn before continuing their flight to Phnom Penh,” he said.
The refugees, who were previously held on the Pacific island of Nauru, were flown secretly to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory in early May and have since been housed at an immigration facility near the airport there.
Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, Sopheak said, the refugees will be immediately taken to temporary accommodation “arranged for them with funding from Australia”.
After months of refusing to play party to the deal, which was signed in 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.
It warned that the same level of support may not be available to those who chose to accept resettlement at a later date.
Earlier this month, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed that it had organised villa-style accommodation for the four refugees, where they are expected to stay for “up to three months” before “transitioning to accommodation in local communities”.
Various IOM spokespeople said yesterday that the group had received “no confirmation” that the refugees would be arriving today.
The IOM also repeated that media access to the group would not be forthcoming.
A spokesperson for Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office yesterday refused to confirm or deny whether the refugees would be arriving today, saying only: “We have been asked for weeks or longer about movement of people – we have not commented, that remains the situation.”
The reported arrival of the refugees will come less than two weeks after Major General Andrew Bottrell, the senior Australian military official in charge of coordinating the resettlement deal, visited Phnom Penh to finalise arrangements for their transfer.
Australia’s refusal to comment on plans for the refugees’ arrival is in keeping with the secrecy the deal – which was first raised in a closed-door meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Hun Sen last year – has been shrouded in since day one.
As the Cambodian government revealed that the refugees would be arriving, the Australian Embassy yesterday released a statement announcing that a Royal Australian Navy Ship will be visiting Cambodia later in the week, reinforcing the “close links” between the two countries.
To rid itself of the refugees, Australia has agreed to provide an additional A$40 million (about US$31 million) in aid to Cambodia, and later announced it would spend an estimated A$15.5 million more to fund resettlement services.
According to the IOM, services available to the four will include “daily subsistence, language training, cultural and social orientation, education services, health services, employment services, temporary accommodation and assistance to secure long-term accommodation”.
But despite this, concerns remain among rights observers for the group’s welfare and the wider rights of refugees in the region.
“This is a selfish and irresponsible move by Australia that will ultimately make the Asian region more hostile to refugees, and create enduring problems for efforts to protect people fleeing political persecution,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
The four refugees are “essentially guinea pigs in a Cambodian experiment that has already seen Montagnard and Uighur asylum seekers sent back into harm’s way when it became convenient for Phnom Penh to do so”.