As a group of Cambodian officials reportedly departed for Australia and asylum seeker detention centres on the Pacific island of Nauru last night, the Interior Ministry said that refugees would be given a brutally “realistic” summation of contemporary Cambodia before they choose to come here.
Under an agreement signed last month, asylum seekers on Nauru found to be genuine refugees – who have been told they will never be allowed to settle on the Australian mainland – will be given the choice to relocate to Cambodia instead, with resettlement costs to be met by Australian taxpayers.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak made it clear yesterday that the government would not be pulling its punches with the refugees about life in Cambodia, leading observers to question whether its professed desire to engage in “humanitarian” resettlement was genuine.
“This is not a trip to advertise [and] to attract tourists to Cambodia, this trip is to tell them about Cambodia,” he told the Post yesterday. “About life, about culture, about the history of Cambodia and where we came from. For example, the three years, eight months and 20 days [of the Khmer Rouge regime], how we suffered. The reality of Cambodia, not the advertising.
“Cambodia is like a developing country, not a developed country like where [they] want to stay. They want to go to Australia.”
While a reliable source with close links to the refugee office said a group of at least five officials were to leave for Australia last night and later Nauru, Sopheak denied this.
Sok Phal, head of the ministry’s immigration department, also claimed that travel plans were yet to be finalised.
Suong Sok, a senior official at the refugee office, said the government was waiting on Australia “before we can send our officers there”. “I truly have no information about this right now,” he said.
An official that declined to be named admitted, however, that plans were highly “secretive”.
Spokespeople for Australia’s immigration minister and the embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
A meeting scheduled for today between acting opposition leader Kem Sokha and the Australian embassy about the deal has been postponed by the embassy because the relevant officials are away, Sokha’s cabinet chief Muth Youttha said.
Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service was pleased the government would be honest with refugees on Nauru.
“I certainly think this is a good approach to tell the story as it really is. And if the refugees decide, 'Well, OK, we’d rather take our chances in Cambodia than stay on Nauru', then it’s up to them,” she said.
Coghlan added that those who are “really motivated to give it a go” would have the best chances of succeeding in the Kingdom. “The agreement does say that they can be reunited with their families and also that there is a possibility of getting out to another place,” she said.
A protest on Friday against the deal saw hundreds march through Phnom Penh. Some demonstrators expressed fears that refugees could take scarce jobs and even pose a security risk.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak said that the government appears to be “starting to understand how unpopular the deal is” and would be more receptive to xenophobic concerns than those related to human rights.
“I think the Cambodian government is now trying to play down the deal as much as it can and also making sure it will get that money. I think they are probably hoping that not many refugees are going to come anyway,” he said.
Australia is giving Cambodia $35 million in extra aid over the next four years as a sweetener to the arrangement. Although the agreement stipulates that how many refugees eventually come will be up to Cambodia – which has indicated it will take far fewer than the 1,000 initially expected – if very few decide to come, the money won’t be forthcoming, said Virak.
“They could get the initial $10 million or so. They aren’t going to get the next instalment if refugees aren’t coming. I think Cambodia is actually trying to back down on this deal without appearing to cave into pressure.”
Separately, the International Organization for Migration will this week assess the scheme.
“Our director-general will [then] decide whether or not we’ll be [involved] in resettlement and on what level,” IOM spokesman Joe Lowry said.