To the sound of champagne glasses crashing to the floor after a waiter dropped his tray, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison inked a controversial refugee resettlement deal at the Interior Ministry yesterday.
Despite the mishap , Morrison, who earlier in the day had labeled the deal’s numerous critics the “chardonnay chorus”, clinked champagne flutes with Kheng after they silently signed the secretive arrangement, some details of which finally emerged yesterday.
Australia will give Cambodia about $35 million in extra development aid over the next four years in exchange for the program, Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation before departing to Phnom Penh yesterday morning.
In addition, his government will bear “the direct costs of the arrangement, including initial support to refugees, and relevant capacity building for Cambodia,” according to a joint statement released after yesterday afternoon’s MoU signing ceremony.
But a pilot group consisting of a handful of refugees – likely about four or five - processed at Australian-run detention centres on the Pacific atoll of Nauru – will arrive as early as later this year as part of a “trial arrangement”.
Cambodia will then be able to decide how many refugees it has the capacity to take.
Neither Morrison nor Kheng took questions yesterday.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told the Post that a government team would soon be dispatched to Nauru to find refugees who are willing to move here under the voluntary resettlement arrangement.
“We will explain to them about Cambodia. The country is like this and this, a lecture for them, the culture, and then they will decide if they want to come or not. If they want to come, they can sign the voluntary agreement,” he said.
Sopheak added that that Cambodia wanted to take “as minimum as we can” at first. But he said that after the pilot group, Cambodia would probably choose to take far less refugees than many are expecting.
“[It would be] 20 or 10 or 50 or 100 or something like this. Not 1,000, as people have said,” Sopheak said.
Morrison has said there is “no cap” on the numbers involved in the arrangement. There are currently more than 1,000 asylum seekers detained on Nauru and some 206 of them have been recognised as refugees.
He has also floated that in future, refugees detained by Australia in Papua New Guinea – where Australia also runs detention centres – could also be settled in Cambodia.
In the joint statement, Kheng described Cambodia’s role in the arrangement as a “humanitarian activity”.
But the $35 million development aid packaged tied to it – which Morrison told the ABC would be used for projects like rice mills, election reform and de-mining – has many questioning what the government’s real motives are.
“Australia will no longer condemn human rights abuses in Cambodia, as its relationship with the Cambodian government is far too important now,” political commentator Ou Virak posted on his Facebook page.
“Cambodian government gets the legitimacy and money. Australia gets to offload and ‘dump’ its ‘problems’ and prevent new asylum seekers. This is a win-win deal for both Hun Sen and [Australian Prime Minister Tony] Abbott.”
Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which provides almost all assistance to the 80 or so asylum seekers and refugees already in Cambodia, said she believed the Cambodian government had been “extremely clever” in negotiations with Australia by securing the aid without having yet pledged it will actually take a large number of refugees.
“I think Morrison’s cap and the Cambodian government’s cap are at the different ends of the spectrum. Australia’s cap is many people over many years at one end of the spectrum and at the other end is Cambodia saying no, we’ll take a few and we’ll see how it goes,” she said.
Coghlan added, however, that it was a good thing that the scheme would start with a small number, given that the Kingdom has little experience dealing with large numbers of refugees.
The agreement has been strongly opposed by rights and legal groups in both countries, the Cambodian opposition and the Australian Greens Party, who all accuse Australia of shirking its international responsibilities and question the ability of a developing country like Cambodia to take care of refugees.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy did not reply to a request for comment and his Cambodia National Rescue Party did not put out an official statement yesterday.
But Son Chhay, the CNRP whip and a former refugee who was settled in Australia after the Khmer Rouge, said his party wanted information from the government.
“We want the government to explain… why [they] have changed their decision from the past, where they have been rejecting all the refugees [coming to] Cambodia and suddenly they open up to accept unwanted refugees from Australia,” he said.
Yesterday morning, about 100 protesters who oppose the deal, including well-known land rights activists from the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities, gathered in front of the Australian Embassy to demonstrate.
A sizable police and security presence was deployed to protect the embassy and minor scuffles occurred.
Ly Pisey, 30, claimed she had given up a master’s scholarship in Sydney partly because of what she called the Australian government’s “fascist” border protection policies.
“Cambodia cannot provide services for its own people, so how can they offer protection to refugees?” she said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also weighed in yesterday, saying he was deeply concerned at the precedent set by the agreement
“International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works. I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach,” António Guterres said in a statement.
“Refugees are persons who are fleeing persecution or the life-threatening effects of armed conflict. They are entitled to better treatment than being shipped from one country to the next,” he added.
While resettlement would be voluntary, Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said that in reality “there was nothing optional about this deal” given the stark choice offered to refugees – settling in Nauru or Cambodia.
“It’s like a bully in the schoolyard asking if you want a punch to the face or a kick in the guts,” she said.
The use of Australian aid money as leverage for the deal has drawn criticism from groups involved in development projects.
“Our aid money should not be used to sweeten the deal with one of our poorest neighbours,” said Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, which represents aid groups.
“The government’s stated objectives for international aid are economic development and human development, and this just looks like an inducement to take refugees off Australia’s hands,” he added.
According to Australia’s Morrison, despite all the criticisms, his government wants to give Cambodia – a refugee convention signatory – a chance.
”I mean, this is a country that is trying to get on its feet; this is a country that is making great progress. Its population has doubled from its very dark times many years ago,” he told the ABC.
”So, I mean, is the rest of the world going to constantly keep them in the cellar, not give them a go at trying to do something positive like this, which we're going to do with our expertise? We say we should, we say we should give them a go.”
But Coghlan, of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said this kind of argument was flawed.
“I think Australia should be giving the refugees a go.”