PHNOM PENH - Cambodia and Australia on Friday signed a controversial deal in which Cambodia agreed to take an open-ended number of refugees held at Australia's offshore detention facilities, even though the deal has been widely condemned in both countries and beyond.
Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng signed the agreement on Friday with Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in a brief ceremony in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
The signing ceremony - marred by the crash of a dropped tray of champagne glasses - lasted just minutes and, after a brief round of applause from their entourages on stage, both men ignored questions from the media and left the room.
Number of refugees
A joint statement handed to the media afterwards said Cambodia would decide when and how many refugees it would take, adding that the countries had agreed on an “initial trial arrangement with a small group of refugees, which will be followed by further resettlement in accordance with Cambodia’s capacity.”
Earlier Friday Morrison told Australia’s ABC network that Canberra would pay Cambodia the equivalent of around $35 million in aid over the next four years.
The deal has been widely condemned in Cambodia and abroad.
Late Friday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said he was deeply concerned at the deal’s signing and hoped Australia would reconsider. In a statement, Guterres said the agreement was a “worrying departure from international norms,” adding that countries must not shift their refugee responsibilities.
Those concerns were echoed by Cambodian opposition legislator Son Chhay, who spoke to reporters Friday morning at a demonstration against the deal near the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh.
Chhay also criticized the level of secrecy around the negotiations, and the risk of corruption over the forty million Australian dollars that Cambodia will receive.
He said it was wrong to use Cambodia as “a dumping ground for unwanted refugees.”
“Because we believe that this deal not just violate the Refugee Convention, but it also up to some countries who have money able to buy off their responsibility towards refugees, and could create a bad habit for many countries to follow," Chhay said.
Held in detention
The UNHCR said there are around 1,200 people on the Pacific island of Nauru and nearly 1,100 people in detention on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island under an arrangement with Australia.
Most are believed to be from countries in South Asia and the Middle East.
Earlier Friday, Morrison told ABC that around 200 people on Nauru had been classified as refugees and would be eligible to be sent to Cambodia, and said there would be no upper limit to the number of refugees who volunteered under the program.
He also praised the deal as one that provides a regional solution to a regional problem.
Phnom Penh has long insisted that it will only accept refugees who come voluntarily.
The proposed resettlement deal was the subject of months of secret negotiations, and has drawn criticism from rights organizations, church groups and opposition politicians in both countries.
Deal called 'inappropriate'
On Thursday, Alastair Nicholson, a former chief justice of Australia’s Family Court said the deal was “inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal,” and warned it would put refugees and their children at risk. Nicholson was speaking on behalf of an alliance of non-profits including Amnesty International, Save the Children, and the Refugee Council of Australia.
Some Cambodians are also against it, partly on the grounds that Cambodia must solve its own entrenched problems before taking in refugees. Among those demonstrating near the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday was lawyer Son Chum Chuon.
“We think that the Australian government should not send the refugees to Cambodia because Cambodia now [has] not enough the capacity to receive the refugees because if we think to the human rights system, or the democracy system in Cambodia, [it] is still poor. That is the reason that some demonstrators they want to gather in front of the Australian embassy today," Chuon said.
Cambodia, a post-conflict nation with weak social services, has a poor rights record, and some have queried why one of the world's richest nations is trying to send refugees to one of its poorest and most corrupt.
Key services such as health and education are in bad shape, and there are few jobs available. Malnutrition and poverty are widespread.
For its part, the conservative government in Australia, which is one of Cambodia's key donors, came to power a year ago promising it would be tough on asylum-seekers.
Australian officials claim that many of those seeking asylum are economic migrants.