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Refugees won’t stay clustered: official

Stretchers sit in tents as part of the accommodation area at the Nauru offshore refugee-processing facility
Stretchers sit in tents as part of the accommodation area at the Nauru offshore refugee-processing facility. DIBS

Refugees won’t stay clustered: official

A senior immigration official has said refugees resettled in Cambodia from Australia’s offshore detention centre on Nauru will not be housed together and will be encouraged to seek work.

Despite Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison indicating on Wednesday that discussions had “hit a snag”, the negotiations are still ongoing, General Sok Phal, director general of the General Department of Immigration, told the Post yesterday.

If a deal is reached, the refugees will not be held, at least in the long term, in institutionalised accommodation, he said.

“It is not necessary to put those refugees on an island; they will just live and work like other refugees in [Phnom Penh and other cities],” he said, referring to an idea that Cambodia National Rescue Party chief whip Son Chhay said last month had been floated in the past. “So far, no deal has been reached in this matter.

“From my understanding, these people [refugees on Nauru] will do similar things to those who are already here, and there is no need for them to live in a group. Of course, they will stay together for a while, and then they will separate,” he added.

The Post reported last month that high-level Australian bureaucrats had visited properties in Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk province to assess possible resettlement sites.

Cambodia currently has 60 refugees registered with the UN refugee agency and another 31 undergoing registration, according to the department.

“As I understand, it is still under the process of negotiation. The timing and the exact numbers of refugees has not yet been decided,” Phal said. “We are waiting for approval to receive them and manage them. I think they won’t need to live in camps; they will be looking for work.”

The comments came a day after Morrison told reporters at Australia’s National Press Club that there was “still distance to travel” before the deal could be signed.

“It’s frustrating, but we’re confident we’ll get there.… This isn’t about just putting people somewhere and looking the other way,” he said.

Out of the more than 1,000 asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru, 206 are already living temporarily outside the island detention centre and would likely be offered the option of resettlement in Cambodia in the event of a deal being signed.

One of the refugees granted temporary residence on Nauru, who was contacted by the Post last week and cannot be named for security reasons, said he wanted to know more about life in Cambodia.

“You know, we are [the Australian governments’] animals. In the words of Scott Morrison, he wants to sell us – sometimes to one country, sometimes to another country. But no one is ready to [welcome] us,” he said.

It is not clear how much money would change hands if the deal was signed, but Joyce Chia, senior research associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, said there was precedent for a large incentive to be offered.

“It would make sense for there to be another incentive. I had in mind the [Papua New Guinea-Australia] deal, which was sold partly to the PNG government on the basis that there would be jobs and further investment in Manus Island,” she said.

“Of course, one is aware that governments do offer other sweeteners which may be promised informally but are never tied expressly to the deal. For example, it was telling that PNG received an extra $420 million in foreign aid at a time when other aid budgets were cut.… The original Nauru agreement made in 2001 included $26.5 million in aid and development money.”

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