Two years ago today, to the sound of clinking champagne glasses, Interior Minister Sar Kheng inked a deal with Australia’s immigration minister to accept refugees detained on Nauru.
At the time, details of the agreement were shrouded in secrecy and courted by controversy. The deal cast Cambodia as both a pawn in Australia’s heavily criticised refugee policies, and as a complicit agent in helping the wealthy nation avoid its international obligations.
In the past two years, five refugees took up the offer, but of those five, only one still remains – Mohammed Rashid, a Rohingya muslim who has been in and out of hospital and repeatedly voiced his discontent with his living conditions.
The meagre results of the expensive deal, under which Australia was to provide support for the “successful implementation” of the “permanent resettlement” for refugees, have long been panned by refugee advocates and human rights bodies alike.
On its two-year anniversary, many have called for the deal to be scrapped entirely. On September 28, 2014, two days after the deal was signed, a father of two detained on Nauru said he would “kill his whole family including the children because they deserve more out of life”.
The words were spoken to a Save the Children staff member on the island, who went on to record that the man’s loved ones “deserved a future that he could not provide them because he did not get on a boat and come [to Australia] to be resettled in Nauru or Cambodia”.
That incident report was followed by another, and another, seven in total over the next year naming Australia’s pact with Cambodia as a point of distress.
The troubling reports only came to light last month, with the leaked “Nauru Files”, published by the Guardian, which provided details of cases of abuse and self-harm in thousands of documents. Despite the effect the news of the scheme was having on Nauru, four refugees volunteered for the journey, and three arrived in June 2015. Mohammed, the fifth, arrived in November that year.
A man from Myanmar was the first to return home, in October 2015. An Iranian couple followed suit in February this year, while another Iranian man departed in April. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) was tasked with resettling the refugees in Cambodia, for which A$15 million has been allocated by the Australian government to provide accommodation, language lessons and employment training.
The agency was criticised by Rashid when he revealed his health struggles in March this year. IOM declined to comment for this article.
Connect Settlement Services last month was quietly contracted to fulfil the same role in the Kingdom, with two staff members deployed here; although last week Connect announced it would not continue its work on Nauru after December, spokesman Laurie Nowell said that would likely have no bearing on its Cambodian commitments, as they are two separate contracts.
The last two years have seen two Australian immigration ministers in the job, two resettlement agencies contracted for the work, A$40 million in aid to Cambodia and just one refugee still on Cambodian soil. The numbers, critics suggest, amount to a failure.
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said the deal had “gone down in flames”.
“This was a refugee dumping deal, pure and simple – with Australia paying blood money to a poorer country to accept responsibility for people that Australia didn’t want,” he said.
“The deal should be scrapped, and whatever funds are still committed to this deal should be returned to the Australian taxpayer. This deal was a seriously rights-abusing agreement, and it should never be repeated anywhere else by the Australian government.”
Ian Rintoul, of the Australian-based Refugee Action Coalition, said the scheme was a farce and doomed from the start. “There was never any prospect of Cambodia providing a durable solution for refugees transferred there,” he said. “The Cambodia deal is essentially finished. There are no refugees remotely interested in going there.
“The deal should be officially ended and repudiated by Cambodia.”
Both said vulnerable people had simply sought an escape from the horrors of Nauru.
“The fact that so few came to Cambodia even when things were that bad on Nauru speaks volumes for how poorly regarded the Cambodia option was,” Robertson said.
Australian Greens party immigration spokesman Nick McKim said while recent national audits into the scheme “highlighted major deficiencies” in the spending of public money, further investigation was underway and he hoped more details would be revealed in Senate Estimates Hearings next month.
“Ultimately, the people on Manus Island and Nauru should be resettled in Australia where we can look after them properly in line with our moral obligations and international agreements we are party to,” he said.
Although Cambodian immigration officials earlier this year indicated that two new Iranian refugees had expressed interest in coming to the Kingdom, anonymous sources on Nauru cast doubt on their accounts, and no visit to Nauru was made.
While the director of Cambodia’s refugee department, Tan Sovichea, said on multiple occasions that they were simply waiting for Australian authorities to give them the green light to visit and inform the interested refugees about Cambodia, the call never came.
When asked if there was any stalling of travel arrangements of refugees who wished to come to Cambodia, a spokesman at the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection yesterday said that he could not comment on individual cases, but stressed the deal was still open for anyone who opted to take it.
“Refugees in Nauru continue to have the option of volunteering for settlement in Cambodia,” he said in an email. “The Department continues to work with the Cambodian Government to ensure the successful implementation of the settlement arrangement.”
He stressed that Australia’s policies – labelled “cruel in the extreme” by Amnesty International – aimed “to provide safe and legal migration pathways to those in need and to discourage people from risking their lives by relying on people smugglers”.
The refugee department’s Sovichea could not be reached over the weekend, but the department’s Kerm Sarin was circumspect about the now two-year-old deal.
“I could not say it was successful, but it is voluntary; they volunteer to live in Cambodia,” he said.
Sarin denied that the low retention rate was problematic or highlighted issues with resettlement.
“We didn’t get any bad feedback from them,” he said.
“When coming here to Cambodia, maybe there’s a culture, a language difference. It may not be the impact of the MoU or the refugee service providers, it could be voluntary – that they were away for a long time and they wanted to go home.
“I hope they are safe,” he said.