Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Deal for refugees expected very soon

Deal for refugees expected very soon

Tents serve as the accommodation quarters for refugees at Australia’s offshore processing facility in the Republic of Nauru in 2012
Tents serve as the accommodation quarters for refugees at Australia’s offshore processing facility in the Republic of Nauru in 2012. DIBP

Deal for refugees expected very soon

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will visit Phnom Penh this week, reportedly to hammer out details on a controversial deal, expected “imminently”, to send refugees to Cambodia from an off-shore detention facility on the Pacific atoll of Nauru.

The signing of the accord would follow a meeting between Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Australian Ambassador Allison Burrows on Friday in Phnom Penh. After the meeting, a high-level official from Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters that Morrison would visit Cambodia “soon”.

“Regarding the issue of refugees, Australian Immigration Minister [Morrison] will soon, in the upcoming days, visit Cambodia. The minister will visit a number of areas in Cambodia,” the official said.

Australia’s Fairfax Media today quotes an anonymous source with knowledge of the delegation’s visit as saying that the accord would be signed “imminently”.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been in Myanmar attending a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, which Cambodia’s foreign minister, Hor Namhong, also attended.

It was not immediately clear if the two diplomats had discussed the deal on the sidelines of the meeting in Naypyidaw.

Morrison made a 24-hour visit to Phnom Penh in April, during which he met with Kheng for talks that built on a February visit by Bishop, when the proposal was first put forward.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, secretary of state Prum Sokha and Foreign Ministry secretary of state Ouch Borith could not be reached yesterday.

Sok Phal, director-general of the Interior Ministry’s newly created immigration department, declined to comment.

Craig Chittick, Australia’s ambassador for people smuggling, is also expected to arrive in Cambodia later this month.

The Post confirmed yesterday morning that four rooms at a local hotel had been reserved by an Australian Embassy staffer under Chittick’s name for the night of August 20.

Chittick was appointed to the post in 2012, a year after plans his predecessor set in motion to send asylum seekers to Malaysia were scuttled.

Representatives of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, Morrison and Chittick’s offices and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not return requests for comment.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, condemned the decision to push ahead with the deal despite widespread opposition from civil society and refugee advocates.

“At its core, the Australia refugee dumping deal is all about Canberra violating its rights obligations and paying Phnom Penh to clean up the mess. Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government should be universally condemned for his central role in trashing the principle of refugee protection in the region,” he said in an email.

Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service said that Australia was setting a dangerous precedent by seeking to outsource its responsibility to refugees.

“If I’m being brutally honest, I think that refugees might be better off here than they are in Nauru or PNG . . . but if people don’t have some capital behind them, and psychological strength and resilience, they’re going to be in a very bad state,” she said.

“By being able to do this, Australia is setting a dangerous precedent for the world in how it looks after refugees. If this deal goes ahead, other countries will probably follow their lead.”

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