Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has heaped praise on the Cambodian government, which last month deported dozens of Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam, as a “very responsible” partner in refugee resettlement.
In an interview on Thursday, he said that the controversial bilateral deal’s numerous critics will soon be proved wrong when up to five refugee families are initially settled in the Kingdom.
Cambodian officials will travel to Nauru in coming weeks to meet the approximately 400 refugees eligible for resettlement here in a bid to find three to five families willing to make the move.
No refugees processed in Australian-run detention centres on the South Pacific island have yet officially volunteered for the resettlement scheme, but Dutton said he had no doubt that sufficient numbers would agree to be part of the trial group and that many others would follow.
The deal - which was inked last September and will see Australia give Cambodia $35 million in extra aid over four years - has been lambasted by rights groups and opposition parties in both countries.
But the Australian minister, speaking to the Post before he departed home after a 24-hour visit to Phnom Penh, claimed critics will be left embarrassed when the initial group is successfully resettled in Cambodia with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“I think the criticisms have been lacking substance, and I think they haven’t been based on fact, and I think some of the critics will be embarrassed when they understand the depth of the arrangement and the depth of support that will be provided,” he said.
Dutton, who was appointed in December, declined to comment on last month’s deportations of 45 Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam by Cambodian authorities without subjecting them to the status determination processes legally required.
He said he did not have “the full facts” in relation to the matter and thus it would not be appropriate for him to comment.
But he applauded the government’s “responsible approach” to Australia’s proposal.
“I think critics will always find a point to criticize, but my experience has been a very positive one and that’s only been reinforced by the meetings today,” he said, referring to back-to-back meetings with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Immigration Department chief Sok Phal and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
”I think the Cambodian government understands their responsibilities, I think that they are meeting their responsibilities, and I think they have the capacity to work well with the Nauruans to provide a new life [for the refugees].”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kuy Koung told reporters following Dutton’s meeting with Namhong that the Cambodian minister had made it clear that the refugees that come here will have the right to be resettled in a third country if they so desire.
But Dutton said on Thursday that given the initial families will receive housing, education, employment arrangements, language-learning support and a host of other support services, he believed “their commitment to Cambodia would be long-term”.
He said the IOM, which after long deliberations agreed to assist with the scheme last month, had been identifying local partners to work with in resettlement.
“They’ve been able to scope out potential housing arrangements. They’ve been able to enter into some discussion with employment providers and with people in Cambodia that might be willing to partner to make this a success.”
Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said Australia should not be separating Cambodia’s recent treatment of Montagnard asylum seekers and its patchy track record on refugee rights from the bilateral deal.
“Australia’s silence on the treatment of the Montagnards does speak volumes. Australia is showing that it is willing to stay quiet when human rights violations are happening and stay quiet about the protection of refugees in order to get this deal,” he said.
“What other compromises is Australia prepared to make?”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA