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Refugee talks ‘not a priority’ on Oz visit

Sar Kheng shakes hands with Australian Ambassador Alison Burrows
Sar Kheng shakes hands with Australian Ambassador Alison Burrows at Phnom Penh Airport before departing yesterday. Vireak Mai

Refugee talks ‘not a priority’ on Oz visit

High-ranking Cambodian officials will discuss the possible transfer of refugees from Nauru during a three-day visit to Australia this week, officials said yesterday.

But the Interior Ministry officials, speaking at Phnom Penh International Airport as the delegation prepared to leave, said the visit would focus on signing a new immigration and border protection agreement and that discussing the refugee deal was “not a priority issue”.

Last week, a spokesman for Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told the Post that a Cambodian delegation was expected to visit Nauru over the coming days to speak to refugees “about their resettlement options in Cambodia”.

But General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the officials headed for Australia would not be travelling to the Pacific island as no refugees had said they would be interested in a move to Cambodia.

“So far, there are no people or families that have expressed a willingness to come to Cambodia,” he said. “We are not going to campaign for tourists. If they don’t want to come, it doesn’t matter.”

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, who is leading the delegation to Canberra, said the refugee deal was not on the official agenda for the visit.

“The two parties will build on the matter responsibly, and so far, we have not seen any progress with the deal,” he said.

Cambodia signed the controversial pact with Australia on September 26. Last month, the International Organisation for Migration formally agreed to oversee the resettlement.

Rights groups, the UN refugee agency, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and Australian Greens party have repeatedly criticised the agreement, under which Australia would pay $35 million in additional aid money and fully cover the costs of resettlement.

Despite the Cambodian officials’ apparent decision not to go to Nauru, a refugee living on the island said that the community had been told that officials from Cambodia would hold meetings with them this week and that “about 25 people” were interested in hearing what they had to say.

Kheng will also meet with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who first broached the possibility of a refugee transfer in February last year in a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE

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