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Australia pushes refugee reunions

Cambodia’s first group of refugees arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport last year under a resettlement deal struck with Australia.
Cambodia’s first group of refugees arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport last year under a resettlement deal struck with Australia. Pha Lina

Australia pushes refugee reunions

The Australian government is pushing its Cambodian counterparts to allow the families of three refugees – due to arrive in Cambodia soon under a controversial resettlement deal – to meet them in the Kingdom, an Interior Ministry official said yesterday.

Head of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department Tan Sovichea said the men, a Pakistani, Afghan and Sri Lankan, all over 50 years of age, had been cleared to settle in Cambodia and would arrive this month, though the subsequent request from the Australians was still subject to discussion.

“The Australian government wants to arrange for them to meet their families here, but the Cambodian side has not discussed deeply on this,” Sovichea said. “They haven’t mentioned how many [family members], they just want a family reunion.”

Sovichea said the request was for visitation. He said if any of the family members wanted to stay in Cambodia, they would need to apply as migrants.

Cambodia in 2014 agreed to take refugees held by Australia on the Pacific island of Nauru in exchange for an A$40 million aid pledge. The deal, under which Australia also stumped up A$15 million for resettlement costs, is part of Canberra’s hard-line refugee policy, which it says is aimed at discouraging people from attempting to reach its shores by boat.

The scheme has been widely panned by critics, with only five refugees opting to move to the Kingdom and four of those ultimately returning to their native countries.

Article 24 of the memorandum of understanding underpinning the Cambodian resettlement deal does guarantee refugees the right to have dependent family members reside in Cambodia as regular migrants.

But Sovichea said that while families of refugees could freely travel to Cambodia if they had the means, reunions were not covered by the agreement, saying more discussion was needed.

As for relocation expenses, he said “I don’t know whether the Australians will pay or what.”

It’s unclear what role the prospect of seeing their families played in the latest group’s decision to take the deal. The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh was unable to provide a response by press time yesterday.

Via email, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it did not comment on individual cases but added: “Australia and Cambodia are committed to an arrangement that provides refugees with the support they need to integrate into the Cambodian community and build new lives.”

On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a further toughening of Canberra’s stance, flagging new legislation to ban all adults sent to offshore immigration centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island from ever entering Australia, even as tourists or on business, regardless of whether they’re found to be refugees or not.

Talking afterwards to ABC radio in Australia, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government could help separated families move elsewhere to encourage refugees to accept resettlement in a third country.

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