Australia's immigration minister, Scott Morrison, met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh yesterday for talks following a controversial request by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in February for Cambodia to take in some of its refugees.
The closed-door meeting at the Ministry of Interior came a day after Morrison signed a deal that would allow refugees housed in Australia’s controversial offshore Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea to be resettled in that country.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong yesterday confirmed that the meeting had taken place.
“Australian Immigration Minister [Morrison] met with Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng [yesterday] morning at the Interior Ministry,” he said, adding that he could not go into the details of what was discussed.
Morrison’s office said in a statement yesterday that he was in Phnom Penh to “further discussions on regional cooperation on people-smuggling issues, following on from the earlier visit by [Bishop]”.
“Australia has ongoing engagement with countries across our region on strengthening border protection and deterring the illegal movement of people across borders,” the statement reads.
Phay Siphan, spokesman at the Council of Ministers, said he had not been briefed on the meeting but that the Foreign Ministry may release information at a later date.
“I haven’t yet heard the comments [from the meeting]. [The Foreign Ministry] may respond to the proposal on the refugee issue,” he said.
Australian embassy officials did not respond to requests for comment yesterday, and Morrison declined to take a call from a Post reporter to his hotel room. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said in February that Bishop had proposed Cambodia resettle refugees in a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Australia neither confirmed nor denied the request had been made, while Cambodia later said that it would not welcome refugees who wished to use the country as a “springboard” for political activities, raising questions about what protection Cambodia could offer.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Morrison’s visit showed the Abbott government’s “shameful” stance on refugees.
“The Abbott government’s shameful, rights abusing behaviour regarding refugees and asylum seekers apparently has no limits, and the arrival of Scott Morrison in Phnom Penh indicates the thoroughly bad idea of transferring Australia’s responsibilities to Cambodia is still alive and kicking,” he said in an email.
“It’s time for UNHCR to stand up and say that this is unacceptable, and for Cambodia to drop the proposal altogether.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL