Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton met Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh yesterday in a sit-down where Cambodia pledged that it was “ready to accept more refugees” under a controversial deal between the two countries.
The talks came just days after it was revealed that a Rohingya man, one of four refugees to have already accepted resettlement from the Pacific island of Nauru, had said he wanted to return to Myanmar after only two months in the Kingdom.
It also came in the shadow of comments made by Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak that multiple foreign media outlets interpreted to mean the deal was on shaky ground.
Following the meeting at the Peace Palace late yesterday afternoon between Dutton, Hun Sen and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, Sri Thamrong, a delegate minister attached to the premier, said that, despite the setbacks, “there is no backtracking on this issue”.
“Cambodia is ready to accept more refugees,” he said. “Both [Hun Sen] and [Dutton] want to have more refugees come . . . on a voluntary basis.”
Thamrong said a “team of four or five people” from the Ministry of Interior will be sent to Nauru again to interview refugees who have volunteered for resettlement.
He added that Hun Sen will visit Australia early next year.
Dutton’s visit came as Australia announced it would permanently resettle 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq on its own shores.
After the meeting, Dutton visited the five-star Raffles Hotel Le Royal, where he met a group of Australian officials, including Ambassador Alison Burrows, who were waiting for him in the lobby while chatting over drinks.
As they discussed their travel plans and work engagements, the group enjoyed classical Cambodian music being performed on a xylophone by a man in traditional attire.
When Dutton arrived, the conversation changed to what officials should tell the press about the visit.
Dutton suggested to a member of the group: “Maybe we’ll say Cambodian officials will ensure to make arrangements for the next group” of refugees.
When the Post approached Dutton for comment, he said only that he planned “to make a very positive statement in the morning”, as he and his entourage rushed out of the hotel and got into a waiting car.
Since the deal was signed between the countries over a champagne toast in September, it has been slammed by critics, who have accused Australia of failing to meet its obligations under international law and highlighted Cambodia’s poor track-record of accepting asylum seekers.
Australia had initially agreed to provide an additional A$40 million (about US$31 million at the time) in aid to Cambodia, and later announced it would spend an estimated A$15.5 million more to fund resettlement services.
After months of no one volunteering for resettlement, Australia’s Immigration Ministry circulated a letter offering large cash payouts and other inducements to those willing to move immediately.
Despite this, so far, only four have arrived.
Thamrong said the settling-in process for the refugees – who still remain in “temporary” villa accommodation – has been slow because of their lack of language skills.
“We want to have them speaking Khmer faster so that they can communicate in the community and find work, [so] we decided to push them to train harder,” he said.
Thamrong added that the government was “awaiting paperwork” regarding the repatriation of the Rohingya refugee.