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Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

FILE - Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signs a document together with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng on a deal for the resettlement of refugees, at the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh, Sept. 26, 2014.

The United Nations Children’s Fund is voicing concern about the decision by Australia to transfer asylum seekers detained on the Pacific island of Nauru to Cambodia, possibly as early as Monday. UNICEF’s concerns come amid growing refugee protests in Nauru and protests over transfers of families in Darwin to Nauru early Saturday.

The first group of refugees seeking asylum in Australia could be sent to Cambodia in the coming days, under a deal reached by the countries last year.

The agreement calls for Cambodia to accept the refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder-line approach toward asylum seekers and refugees in recent years, aimed at deterring boat arrivals and discouraging human smugglers.

But the program has been criticized by rights groups and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

'Best interests of the child'

The United Nations Children’s Fund says Cambodia and Australia have overlooked the rights of the children.

“It’s pretty clear for us. Both Australia and Cambodia are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which imposes an obligation on the countries that sign up for it that in any action they take, the best interests of the child is a prime concern,” said Chris de Bono, a UNICEF regional spokesperson.

Under the agreement, Australia will temporarily fund accommodation and resettlement services for refugees who voluntarily travel to Cambodia for at least one year, and will then provide support on a case-by-case basis. Australia has offered to provide health insurance for five years.

Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has defended the resettlement program in a bid to ease concerns within the country over its social and economic costs.

But UNICEF spokesperson de Bono says both governments need to address welfare issues, in particular those faced by the children.

“There’s a whole gamut of rights there, and what the convention sets out is that when the government takes an action that has an impact on a child, it takes responsibility for making sure that those rights are part of the discussion and they are respected in the process,” he said.

Detention centers

A recent Australian report by a former integrity commissioner, Philip Moss, on conditions at the Australian-funded center in Nauru was highly critical and detailed allegations of rape and assault, self-harm among children, and trading of sexual favors for drugs.

Similar reports of self-harm have come from an asylum-seeker detention center in Darwin, including several episodes of apparent suicide attempts.

On Saturday, a number of detainees, including families with at least one 3-month-old child, were flown out of Australia to Nauru despite recent protests.

In the coming days, possibly as early as Monday, a charter plane is expected to fly from Nauru with some 10 refugees destined for resettlement in Cambodia.