PHNOM PENH — A controversial refugee resettlement deal between Cambodia and Australia has moved closer, the Cambodian government says, with agreement “in principle” to accept an unknown number of people.
A senior official at Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ouch Borith, told reporters late Tuesday that his government had agreed “in principle” to take in refugees who are currently being held by Australia in detention centers on Nauru, an island in the South Pacific.
Ouch Borith insisted that Cambodia would not take the refugees unless they came voluntarily.
The details are still being worked out in a Cambodian inter-ministerial committee, and VOA understands that a final deal is likely to be months away.
The conservative government in Australia, which is one of Cambodia’s most important donors, came to power last year on a pledge to be tough on asylum-seekers.
Since news broke in February that Australia had asked Cambodia to take in refugees, rights workers have expressed concerns over the proposal given the country’s poor human rights record.
Others wonder why one of the world’s richest nations is trying to send refugees to one of the poorest.
Sister Denise Coghlan heads the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been active in refugee issues in Cambodia since 1990. Although she cautions that many details are yet to emerge, she said there are a couple of positives that come with Cambodia’s decision.
“Is that Cambodia is willing to offer hospitality where Australia is not. For me that’s really important because the climate of the world is against refugees now. There’s an openness to receiving them. So that’s one," Sister Denise explained. "And then they’ve also said they’d live in community rather than detention centers like Australia’s concocting. And then they also said - or Ouch Borith is quoted as saying - that people have to want to come, you know they have to agree to come to Cambodia.”
On the negative side, she added, Cambodia has many displaced people of its own. Those include thousands of villagers evicted from their land, migrants and trafficked people, as well as tens of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese who are stateless within Cambodia.
There are also legal shortcomings with any resettlement plan. Although Cambodia’s current process offers temporary protection for refugees, there is nothing in place to allow such people to eventually convert that temporary status after seven years into residency and full citizenship.
“There’s nothing in place - there’s no way that people can do that as yet in the Cambodian legal system. So they need to address the gaps in both the nationality law and the immigration law and the refugee law, which means residency cards, and they need to be able to grant people work permits," Sister Denise said.
Setting aside Cambodia’s professed willingness to take in refugees, Sister Denise is particularly scathing about Australia’s role. “I think it’s absolutely shameful of Australia. As I’ve said many times before, Australia’s a rich country, it has lots of space, it has a very competent legal system and processes, and there’s no reason whatsoever why it can’t accept the 1,000-plus people that are on Nauru who are determined to be refugees,” she said.
Others have expressed their concerns, among them veteran rights activist Ou Virak who was himself a child refugee after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. In a Facebook post Wednesday, Ou Virak said the current situation left many questions unanswered including, for example, whether children would be able to access their right to an education.
Cambodian officials have said that offering to take in refugees is in keeping with the country’s international obligations, in much the same way as it has contributed peacekeepers and deminers to U.N. operations in recent years. Authorities have repeatedly denied they are holding out for financial sweeteners from Australia to agree to the refugee deal.
The comments by Foreign Affairs Ministry official Ouch Borith’s comments announcing the agreement in principle came after a meeting between Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and the U.N.’s Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, who is currently visiting Cambodia.
Pansieri later told reporters that her office stood ready to help Cambodia meet the necessary standards to ensure the human rights of the refugees are upheld.