Rights groups raised a slew of concerns yesterday in response to an announcement on Tuesday that Cambodia has “agreed in principle” to take on refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
Ouch Borith, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Tuesday that Cambodia was still “studying” Australia’s proposal, following a meeting between Foreign Minister Nor Namhong and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansirei.
But rights groups that work with refugees and asylum seekers currently in the Kingdom pointed to numerous red flags, including the haphazard application process that bars most refugees from obtaining identity cards or full legal status in Cambodia.
“A refugee certificate isn’t even enough to open a bank account or buy a motorbike in some stores, even though some refugees have been living in the country for eight years,” Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), said.
Asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work while their case is being processed, and even recognised refugees often lack documents that enable them to seek legal employment. Citizenship can only be considered if the applicant holds a residence card and has lived continuously in the Kingdom for seven years.
But for Cambodia, there may be other concerns. More than 1,000 refugees could be resettled in the Kingdom, with the Australian government willing to “pay almost anything”, Australia’s ABC reported yesterday.
“But for the government, it’s the money that’s the big difference – Canberra is allegedly offering big money for Phnom Penh to take Australia’s refugees, but no one is standing up to offer similar help for Cambodia’s stateless ethnic Vietnamese,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
Cambodia has repeatedly said there is no financial motive attached to the deal.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which ran Cambodia’s asylum program until 2010, said the organisation had not been invited to take part in the current, bilateral refugee discussions.
“In principle, we would be concerned by any practice that goes against the spirit of resettlement by relocating refugees to another country where they may not be able to enjoy their rights, or that may allow a convention state to divest itself of its responsibility under the refugee convention,” Tan said.
Last month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed that Australia had asked Cambodia to participate in the regional resettlement of refugees.