Cambodian officials visiting Nauru were left with little to do yesterday but wander along the coast, as efforts to encourage refugees to volunteer for resettlement fell on deaf ears, according to an Australia-based NGO in contact with those on the Pacific island.
Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said six officials arrived on the island on Sunday in an effort to speak with the refugees about settlement options in Cambodia as per a $35 million deal signed with Australia last year.
But, he said, their mission had so far been unsuccessful.
“We only know of two people who attended a meeting a couple of days ago, but just to see what they were saying. No one went to the meeting today,” he said yesterday.
According to Rintoul, refugees had put up a sign at one of the camps saying “No Cambodians Inside”.
“No one is interested in Cambodia,” he explained, adding that officials were seen yesterday evening “walking along the water with nothing to do”.
Cambodian officials previously visited Nauru in January but said they met with only three refugees.
The government has strenuously denied that there was any intention for another visit this week, with Interior Minister Sar Kheng stating on Tuesday that the refugee deal was “not a priority issue” for his trip to Australia.
“We are not going to campaign for tourists. If they don’t want to come, it doesn’t matter,” added Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
But, contrary to official denials, Refugee Department director Kerm Sarin admitted yesterday that officials had planned to visit the island all along.
He explained that two delegations had travelled to Australia, one of which, led by Kheng, had gone to sign a new immigration pact, and the other to discuss the refugee deal and visit Nauru. He could not confirm that they were on the island yesterday.
Kheng and Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed off yesterday on the deal on immigration cooperation, vowing to tackle asylum seeker smuggling.
In a joint statement, Dutton is quoted as saying that the new memorandum of understanding “represents the renewed determination by Australia and Cambodia to work closely to counter the growing security threat posed by transnational crime and illegal migration practices.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA