Refugees on Nauru have said they will reject Australia’s offer of resettlement in Cambodia after a protest on the island was staged at the Australian Embassy yesterday amid reports of three more incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide.
An Iranian refugee, who cannot be named and who was speaking on behalf of residents of the “family camp” on the island, yesterday told the Post that the widely held perception of Cambodia as a poverty-stricken and violent country meant that nobody in the camp was currently willing to voluntarily accept the offer of resettlement.
“The people here think of a bad image of Cambodia in their mind, because it’s a very poor country. There is lots of crime, a history of killings and abuse,” he said. “Nobody here wants to go to Cambodia.”
Cambodian officials yesterday confirmed that a pilot phase of resettlement is scheduled to begin later this year.
“We have nothing to lose – there will be suicides if it carries on like this. They will only be able to send our dead bodies to Cambodia,” the refugee said.
During a protest of some 80 people yesterday morning outside the Australian High Commission in Nauru, the refugees called on Canberra to issue them temporary protection visas (TPVs) as officials have said they will do for refugees on Christmas Island, who arrived on the same boats as those on Nauru.
“[Australia is] trying to force people to go to Cambodia; we can’t tolerate this. It’s a really dirty game they’re playing,” the Iranian refugee said. “[Yesterday], there were three more suicide attempts and self-harm [in the detention centre].”
Another refugee, who reportedly slashed his throat upon hearing the news that he would not be offered a temporary visa to Australia, has not been heard from, but the man’s 14-year-old daughter has taken to leading protests against the deal and has refused to drink or eat for two days after sewing her lips shut, the Iranian refugee said.
Another girl, who swallowed washing powder, causing her to vomit blood, was recovering in a Sydney hospital yesterday after being airlifted from the island over the weekend.
Yesterday marked the fourth day of protests on the island against the resettlement plan, which have been marked by a number of suicide attempts and self-harm among children.
Australian officials from the embassy in Phnom Penh and the office of Minister of Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison did not respond to requests for comment.
Morrison, who is seen as a rising star in the administration of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, signed the agreement over glasses of champagne at Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior on Friday at about the same time that some of the asylum seekers apparently tried to kill themselves.
The signing followed seven months of secretive negotiations between the two countries since the possibility of sending refugees to Cambodia was first brought up in February at a meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Bishop told ABC television on Sunday that the agreement would benefit Cambodia.
“Cambodia is very keen to get people into their country who can help them grow their economy,” she said. “I don’t think it’s for you or me to tell Cambodia that they can’t offer themselves as a location for refugees.”
Cambodian officials yesterday defended the agreement, confirming earlier reports that the country would only take on a small number of refugees initially, after officials had visited Nauru.
In a speech to university students yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that there was a “clear roadmap” for accepting the refugees for resettlement.
“We will accept some refugees from Australia based on a voluntary principle; no one can force them to come to Cambodia,” he said. “We have a clear roadmap in accepting those refugees, and nobody will volunteer to come to Cambodia if they do not know what Cambodia is like.”
Long Visalo, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, told reporters that a team of officials would be dispatched to Nauru to assess the refugees.
“We will send officials to Nauru in order to inform the refugees about Cambodia – things such as living conditions, cultural traditions and language,” he said.
He added that the number and timing of the arrival of refugees had not been decided, nor had the locations where they would be housed.
“Temporary resettlement and locations of the first arrivals will be in Phnom Penh, but we still don’t know the location,” he said. “Permanent resettlement and integration into the Cambodian community is still unknown, but it will be outside Phnom Penh.
“We don’t how many refugees will arrive, but there will be small numbers at first. If there are problems during the pilot project, the [agreement] will be amended,” he added.
Visalo said that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) would cooperate with the authorities; however, he added that they had yet to discuss this cooperation with the agency.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the UNHCR’s regional office in Bangkok, said in an email that if the scheme fails, it could put the refugees’ lives at risk once more.
Tan said that with Cambodia’s “embryonic asylum system”, potentially different levels of treatment for existing refugees and those relocated from Nauru, or refugees simply being unable to integrate into Cambodian society, mean “there’s a possibility that they may risk their lives yet again by moving to another country in search of safety and stability”.
The agency warned on Sunday that the continuing crisis in the Middle East following the 2011 uprisings and the advance of the Islamic State would see refugee applications to industrialised countries surge to a 20-year high, while Australia’s policies had caused a 20 per cent drop in applications compared to last year.
The vast majority of refugees fleeing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere end up in camps in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Jordan.
Asked why the refugees had left their native lands and made their way to Australia, the Iranian refugee on Nauru said they had all fled persecution.
“In Iran, the main problem is the government. I think all over the world there are good people and bad governments. Everyone here has a similar story of escape.”