Cambodia has yet to decide whether it will agree to a controversial request to resettle refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres, the interior minister said yesterday.
Speaking at the opening of two new general directorates within the Ministry of Interior charged with handling immigration issues and the provision of identity documents, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said he is still considering the proposal.
“As of now we have not decided yet,” Kheng told reporters. “It is being [considered], but no decision has been made at all.”
According to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, made the request during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in February.
Since then, little has been disclosed about the details of the request. This week, for the first time since the proposal was made public, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) criticised the plan.
In an email to the Post last night, Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Bangkok, said “it goes against the spirit of resettlement if refugees are moved to another country where they may not be able to enjoy their rights at the same level”.
She added that such a proposal could be an attempt by a signatory to the refugee convention to “divest itself of its responsibility”.
Earlier this month, speculation was rife that a deal had been closed when Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison visited Phnom Penh to meet with Kheng.
At the time, Morrison’s office said that he was here to “further discussions on regional cooperation on people-smuggling issues”.
In an interview with Fairfax Media in Australia this week, Morrison said a country’s economic capacity is irrelevant to his planned expansion of a “club” of nations to take refugees.
“When you have a country that’s willing to be engaged in it, an experienced country that is willing to sponsor it and a third country that is a signatory country like Nauru that is also party to all of this . . . That would seem to be a positive thing.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, said that even though Cambodia had ratified the refugee convention, any deal Australia made with the Kingdom would be tarnished.
“If you scan the entire region and look at different governments, who would be most likely to take, basically, Australian blood money, it would be Cambodia,” he said.
“They have the protection of having ratified the refugee convention . . . If they’re going to move them from Nauru, Nauru has also ratified the convention. So they’re trying to say they are moving them from one signatory to another.”
Australia has processing centres on Nauru, in the South Pacific, and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Ou Virak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman, said Cambodia’s human rights record does not bode well for taking on other countries’ refugees. “[Australia] knows all about Cambodia’s poor record on human rights,” he said.
Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, agreed. “Cambodia has enough poor of its own to care for without taking in Australia’s,” she said, adding that the “legal system needs to be strengthened” to protect the rights of refugees before Cambodia agrees to the resettlement.
The Australian Embassy declined to comment.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE