Merits of refugee deal aired in feisty debate

Phay Siphan and Denise Coghlan participated in Thursday’s debate.
Phay Siphan and Denise Coghlan participated in Thursday’s debate. Kimberley McCosker

Merits of refugee deal aired in feisty debate

Wide-ranging talk touches on reasons for and consequences of the controversial arrangement between the Australian and Cambodian government, with Montagnards and Nazis also getting a mention

"Problematic" was the buzz word on Thursday night at MetaHouse, as four panellists tackled questions – both moral and practical – about the Australia-Cambodia refugee deal.

Since their arrival to a barrage of media attention on June 5, little has been heard of the refugees who agreed to resettle in the Kingdom after being detained on Nauru. The four – an ethnic Rohingya man, two Iranian men and an Iranian woman – are living in “villa-style” accommodation paid for by the Australian government while they receive help with orientation and finding work.

Debating the rights and wrongs of the $40 million deal on Thursday were two rights advocates: Billy Tai, a human rights consultant, and Denise Coghlan, who heads up the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia. Jim Brooke, editor-in-chief of the Khmer Times, made the case for supporting the resettlement. Unusual for a public panel discussion, the government was also represented, with Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan answering questions from the audience.

Topics covered during the debate were wide ranging, but largely fell into two categories, as summarised by Billy Tai: first, “Should Australia be doing this?” and second, “What should we do now that they have?”

The most heated debate lay with the first question. Brooke stood by his assertion, made in an article for the Khmer Times, that the Nauru refugees were “snobs”. Pointing out that he was speaking to a room of 90 per cent expatriates, he said: “I’d like to think that most people here like it here and have decided to make a go of it.” Brooke added that the weighing up of options by those who made the journey overseas in search of a better life was “a gamble”, not dissimilar to taking one’s chances at Phnom Penh’s Naga World Casino.

Tai rebutted the comparison of refugees and expats as “problematic”, and criticised the NagaWorld parallel. “They’re gambling with their lives,” he pointed out.

“I seem to disagree with you a lot,” he told Brooke.

Admitting that she was perhaps a “starry-eyed idealist”, Coghlan, an Australian, called for “a new set of principles” to govern refugees arriving in rich countries. She went on to rebut Brooke’s statement that Australia’s “stop the boats” policy had worked. “It worked for people in my country who have somehow lost their sense of hospitality, compassion and the principle to welcome the stranger,” she said.

Using an analogy which he admitted “might get me crucified”, Tai said that the widespread support among Australian voters for draconian immigration policies did not make them acceptable. “Everything the Nazi Germany government did was entirely legal – all the laws they passed through their parliament about the Jewish public were legal,” he said. “I’m really scared this is the path we’re going down again.”

The Cambodian government escaped direct condemnation for agreeing to the deal, with Coghlan actively praising the welcome that had been afforded to the four refugees.

“We see refugees as humans and as human resources,” said government spokesperson Siphan, pointing out that he himself had lived as a refugee in California. “We’re not animals. They could live with us.”

But criticism of the Cambodian government came from other angles, with Coghlan repeatedly pushing Siphan on the disparity between the treatment of Nauru refugees and of others who had arrived in the Kingdom and had been refused assistance and documentation – most recently the hundred-plus members of the Montagnard minority who crossed over the border from Vietnam.

Questions were also raised, both by panelists and by the audience, about how the refugees would fare once the resettlement funding was withdrawn.

The last question of the night came from an audience member, who pushed Siphan on what exactly the $40 million benefits package that Cambodia had secured in exchange for taking the refugees was being spent.

“You don’t know, I don’t know either,” Siphan replied.

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