Senior Australian officials yesterday defended the controversial refugee resettlement deal with Phnom Penh amid a media frenzy sparked by reports that the Kingdom had “no plans” to take in more refugees from the Pacific island of Nauru.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton all denied that the agreement between the two countries, which has come at a cost of A$55 million (US$39.2 million) so far, was falling apart.
Bishop was quoted in the Guardian as saying reports that the arrangement was in peril were “not correct”, while Dutton told Reuters that more refugees from Nauru “are prepared to go to Cambodia”.
Meanwhile, Abbott touted the deal as crucial for Cambodia’s future diplomacy.
“This is an important agreement, and it’s an agreement which indicates Cambodia’s readiness to be a good international citizen,” he said.
The scramble to defend the ongoing viability of the deal stemmed from a seeming misinterpretation of comments made by Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak, officials said yesterday.
When asked to clarify his statements on the resettlement program made last week in the Cambodia Daily, Sopheak yesterday denied that Cambodia was ending the arrangement – as suggested by foreign media outlets – and instead indicated that the Kingdom was simply waiting to take more refugees in after the initial four arrivals were “successfully integrated”.
“No, [the program is not stopping], we are just waiting,” he said yesterday. “We are just waiting for the successful integration.… Now they are living under control of the IOM [International Organization for Migration] and the Australian Embassy.”
Sopheak did say, however, that Cambodia would prefer a trickle of refugees as opposed to a steady stream, to prevent strains on the country’s limited resources, despite the agreement, signed on September 26, 2014, stipulating that all resettlement costs would be met by Australia.
“A few of them is better – not more,” he said. “Not hundreds and thousands.”
While IOM would not comment directly on a statement made by the Cambodian government, spokesman Joe Lowry confirmed the first group of refugees were still living in their initial accommodation and in the process of integrating.
“The four refugees are still at the facility provided by IOM and are continuing their language training and cultural orientation,” he said via email. “They continue to ask for privacy, and we are respecting that wish.”
But even as officials maintain that the contentious deal has not faltered, analysts and observers continue to raise the same arguments made against it since its inception.
They say Australia, in running a facility rife with accusations of abuse, is shunning its duties under international law while passing off refugees and large sums of money to a poorer country whose own refugee track record is mixed at best.
Cambodia’s hands-off approach to the deal “just goes to show how little Cambodia was committed to protecting these refugees in the first place”, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Meanwhile, Ian Rintoul, an Australian political activist and spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said that despite officials offering incentives and even sometimes coercing refugees to relocate to Cambodia from Nauru, the program appears to be at a standstill.
“The Cambodian efforts have just stalled. I haven’t heard of anyone on Nauru being approached,” he said yesterday.
Rintoul also dismissed Dutton’s statements, adding that the Cambodian government has every reason to provide a mirage-like scenario for the deal given the A$40 million ($28.5 million) in aid Australia pledged on top of covering the costs.
“They’ve got multimillion-dollar reasons to maintain the program,” he said, adding that it was clear that the four refugees already in the country are “not integrating into Cambodian society at all, and they’re being isolated”.
Calls to the Australian Embassy were not answered.