The first refugees to accept resettlement from the Pacific island of Nauru touched down in Phnom Penh yesterday, finally cementing the controversial multimillion-dollar deal that Cambodia signed with Australia nine months ago.
The four refugees – an ethnic Rohingya man from Myanmar, two Iranian men and an Iranian woman – arrived at around 10:20am at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Their flight, details of which were first revealed by the Post on Wednesday, took them from Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, to Kuala Lumpur on a Malaysia Airlines jet.
At Kuala Lumpur airport, the refugees were seen, escorted by Australian officials, walking to the terminal from which they caught their flight to Phnom Penh.
They could easily have been mistaken for holidaymakers: the two Iranian men dressed in polo shirts, and the Rohingya refugee in a hoodie and cap.
When they arrived in Phnom Penh, they were immediately driven in a curtained van out of the airport’s VIP terminal, where dozens of journalists were waiting.
Here’s how some people around Phnom Penh reacted to the arrival of refugees under a Cambodia-Australia scheme.
Sao Bunsok, 52, tuk-tuk driver
Speaking personally, I don’t want those refugees, since some of them have criminal backgrounds or are political asylum seekers. Taking guilty people into our country, which is still developing, is not good. Our country cannot afford to care for them when we still depend on outside aid ourselves. If the rich help the poor, that’s great. But if [Australia] is rich already, why do we have to take those refugees to our country?
Bun Roth, 26, security guard
I only learned about the refugees from Australia on Facebook this morning. We normal people have no right to decide whether they can come or not. If the leaders allow them to come in, they will come.… If they come and live normally and do not cause any trouble, it should be OK. But if they come and invade and want to buy our land little by little like the Vietnamese, I am afraid of that.
Chhun Phearom, 26, office worker
I don’t know much about the refugees sent from Australia, but I don’t really want them here. A few is alright. But if there are many of them, it’s not OK, because Cambodia is already in a difficult place because of poverty and our current number of immigrants. [But] We know that Australia has given aid to Cambodia, and if we don’t take those refugees, they will cut off the aid.
Phal Sopheap, 42, motodop
When refugees come like this, it’s not a big deal, but too many is not good. Cambodia has many beggars already and not enough jobs. I think that because it’s just four and we are being given aid in return, it’s all right. But if we have to pay them back, then it’s not good.… Accepting the refugees is humanitarian work as well. If we do a good deed, we will receive good deed.
They were then taken to “villa-style” accommodation in a capital neighbourhood organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has been contracted by Australia to take care of the group.
Joe Lowry, IOM’s Asia-Pacific spokesperson, said the group had “settled in very quickly”.
“They’ve had a long journey, and they didn’t sleep much last night, [but] they’re in fairly good spirits,” he said in an interview at the IOM’s office in Phnom Penh hours after the refugees landed.
The IOM yesterday prepared Iranian food for the refugees, who, according to Lowry, are optimistic about their new lives in Cambodia.
“I asked one of them what his impressions were from the bit of Phnom Penh he’d seen. He thought it would be a much more impoverished environment. He’s seen lots of nice new cars, lots of businesses and plenty of activity on the streets,” he said.
“From tomorrow, they’re going to be out buying their own food and finding their way around the neighbourhood . . . They’re intrigued to get to know that US dollars and local money can be used interchangeably; they hadn’t heard that.”
The resettlement deal has come under heavy criticism ever since it was first raised in a closed-door meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Hun Sen more than a year ago.
Following that meeting, secrecy has pervaded the agreement. Even on the eve of the group’s arrival, Australia refused to offer any confirmation of their travel schedule.
To rid itself of its unwanted refugees, Australia initially agreed to provide an additional A$40 million (about US$31 million) in aid to Cambodia, and later announced it would spend an estimated A$15.5 million more to fund resettlement services.
After months of all refugees on Nauru refusing relocation, Australia’s Immigration Ministry circulated a letter offering large cash payouts and other inducements to those willing to move immediately.
In a statement yesterday, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, cited Cambodia’s recent deportations and mistreatment of Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam in criticising the agreement with Australia.
“Australia is throwing tens of millions of dollars at Cambodia to take these refugees, despite Cambodia’s recent record of ejecting asylum seekers from Vietnam and its threat to throw out even more if some other country doesn’t agree to resettle them,” he said.
There are currently dozens of Montagnards in Phnom Penh whose claims the government is refusing to process.
But, despite the criticisms, both Cambodia and Australia hope that yesterday’s arrivals will encourage more refugees to make the move.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Sky News on Thursday that he expects more to sign up for resettlement.
“I think we can demonstrate it can work for these four and others can follow,” he said.
Kerm Sarin, director of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, said Cambodia was happy to welcome more groups.
“If they want to come voluntarily, then we will accept them,” he said.
Lowry, of the IOM, said the group, which has been contracted to provide support for one year, hopes to be involved in the resettlement of future refugees arriving under the deal.
“By us being involved in the program, we can ensure that they get all the services that they’re entitled to and have the best possible chance of making a go of things here,” he explained.
He also defended the IOM’s decision to support the controversial agreement.
“We weighed up very, very carefully what potential reputational damage could be done to [the] IOM for getting involved and providing the services against the needs of these vulnerable migrants, and we came to the conclusion that they’re better off if they want to voluntarily come to Cambodia and build lives for themselves over here, rather than languish on Nauru,” he said.
And, he added, he was hopeful the refugees would thrive in the Kingdom.
“Their dream was to go to Australia; unfortunately that dream didn’t come true for them, and they’ve had a nightmare. Hopefully they can rebuild the dream here.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH AND PHAK SEANGLY