PHNOM PENH - The first four asylum seekers who have been held on Australia’s behalf on the Pacific island of Nauru arrived in Cambodia early Wednesday. In a controversial and secretive deal signed last year that will cost Australia more than $40 million, Cambodia agreed it would take in those denied resettlement in Australia.
In the end it wasn’t only the details behind this deal; the very arrival of the four asylum seekers in Phnom Penh on Thursday was kept out of sight of the media, and they left Phnom Penh’s airport in a minivan whose windows were curtained off.
The four people – an Iranian couple, a second man, also from Iran, and an ethnic Rohingya man from Myanmar – were taken to a house in the capital where they will be housed for the next year.
Under the controversial deal, Australia will pay all resettlement costs for a year. Those who accept will receive thousands of dollars in cash, language and skills training, and health insurance.
The deal has been deeply controversial both in Australia and abroad.
Phil Robertson is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. He told VOA by Skype that Cambodia is wholly unsuitable for refugee resettlement given its treatment in recent years of refugees from Vietnam and China.
“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society," said Robertson. "These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum-seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”
And, Robertson warns, the deal between Australia and Cambodia will likely undermine refugee rights across the region.
An Australian Immigration Department press officer who travelled to Cambodia with the four declined to speak to the media.
The International Organization for Migration or IOM, is an inter-governmental body that is being paid by Australia to look after the refugees. Given the controversies over this deal, is the IOM concerned for its reputation?
“We’re involved in this because we genuinely believe – and there was a long debate in IOM, we sent experts here to look at the various factors at play – and we genuinely believe that this is the best option for these people at the moment," said IOM spokesman Joe Lowry. "They’re not going to get to Australia, so the only choice they have is stay on Nauru or come to Cambodia.”
Lowry says the four, all of whom volunteered to leave Nauru for Cambodia, requested that they not speak to the media for fear that identifying them might put at risk their families back home.
For its part, Australia hopes their experience will encourage some of the hundreds still on Nauru to consider giving up on their ambition to make Australia home.
In a video in April, Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told the detainees on Nauru their choices were limited to remaining on Nauru for another decade or moving to Cambodia.
“I want to make it very clear to all refugees and transferees in Nauru that you will not under any circumstances be settling in Australia," said Dutton. "This is not an option that the Australian government will ever present to you. Cambodia provides you with a chance to start afresh, a chance to begin a new life. This is your only long-term settlement option.”
More than 600 refugees and asylum-seekers are thought to be on Nauru; hundreds more are 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.
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.
The U.N. refugee agency says it undermines the principles of the refugee convention, to which both nations are a signatory.
And rights groups say Dutton’s description of Cambodia as a land of safety, security and opportunity is patently untrue – and conflicts with the Australian government’s own advice to tourists thinking of visiting the country.
Some Cambodians are unhappy too. In this impoverished country with high levels of corruption, poor education and healthcare, and no social safety net, they can’t understand why foreign nationals will get an array of benefits that are unavailable for citizens.