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Australia refugee deal close

Ouch Borith
Ouch Borith speaks to media at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year. Heng Chivoan

Australia refugee deal close

Cambodia is close to finalising the details of a proposal to resettle refugees from Australia’s detention centre on the South Pacific island of Nauru, according to senior government officials, some of whom are sitting down today to review the controversial plan.

Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but on Sunday he told the ABC during a visit to Australia that the working group tasked with considering Australia’s proposal had finished studying the plan.

“So far, the working group already finished [its] studying on the draft proposed by Australia, and I think that maybe soon, maybe a few days, maybe next week … we’ll send our counter-proposal to the Australian side,” he said.

Koy Kuong, spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, yesterday confirmed that Cambodia was preparing to submit a counter-proposal to Australia, but declined to go into any further detail.

General Sok Phal, head of the General Directorate of Immigration, said the working group, under the chairmanship of Secretary of State Long Visalo, would meet today at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the proposal.

“The working group is still discussing this matter; it is still a tough discussion,” he said. “We have put lots of conditions [on Australia], and we don’t know whether [they will agree]. It is a tough issue.”

Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh on April 3 to discuss the deal following a request by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in February for Cambodia to take in some of its refugees.

In a radio interview yesterday on Australia’s Ray Hadley Morning Show, Morrison said Cambodia was “taking our proposal seriously, and we are working together with them … and we have been engaging also with the UNHCR on this in Geneva and talking to them about our plans”.

A spokeswoman for Morrison yesterday declined to answer questions over rumours that tens of millions of dollars may be transferred to Cambodia if the deal goes ahead.

“Australia has no further update on the status of our discussions with Cambodia than what was provided by the minister after his recent visit to Phnom Penh,” the spokeswoman said by email.

“The Government is continuing its discussions on these issues and welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date.”

Australian lawyer and executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre David Manne said yesterday that Australia should not seek to “divest itself from its legal and moral responsibility” to asylum seekers.

“One particularly disturbing aspect of the proposal is that it’s not been possible to subject the proposal to any scrutiny. There’s been no opportunity to put the proposal under any scrutiny; it largely remains a secret deal at the moment,” he said.

“It’s extremely difficult to see how such an impoverished country as Cambodia, which is barely able to provide for the basic needs of its own population … how the refugees’ basic needs could be met in the future.”

In 2009, Cambodia returned 20 Uighur asylum seekers fleeing persecution in China back to the country despite heavy criticism from foreign donors.

But the Australian government maintains that only refugees who volunteered for resettlement would be moved to Cambodia.

Borith told the ABC that the Cambodian government’s plan to take on refugees from Nauru was a “different story” from its treatment of Uighur asylum seekers, whom he called “illegal immigrants”.

But lawyer Manne was unconvinced, saying that Australia should not place refugees in “a situation of danger and life on the margins”.

“Cambodia is a country that is not a suitable country to take refugees, being an impoverished nation with a troubling human rights record,” he said.

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