PHNOM PENH - Cambodia has agreed to take more refugees from an Australian detention center on the island of Nauru, giving a boost to a $40 million resettlement deal that so far has been widely seen as an expensive failure for Australia. The pledge came after an unannounced visit to Phnom Penh by Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, during which he met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
After Dutton’s meeting with Hun Sen, a Cambodian government spokesman told news media that the Southeast Asian nation is “ready to accept more refugees.”
That came after speculation that the controversial deal had, for all intents and purposes, collapsed.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, said the memorandum of understanding between the two countries remains in force.
“Of course Cambodia will continue to receive more refugees from Nauru. And now we have been informed that four of them, [we] understand that they are voluntarily to resettle in Cambodia. So the team from the Ministry of Interior will [be] sent to interview them. I am not sure when, but in the near future,” said Sopheak.
Until now only four refugees had signed up to leave miserable conditions on the Pacific island of Nauru to make a new life in impoverished Cambodia. Three are Iranian; the other is an ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar.
The Rohingya man recently said he wants to leave Cambodia and return to Myanmar. Khieu Sopheak said his departure process is underway.
“The two governments of Cambodia and Australia’s immigration departments do not [oppose] the intention of that Rohingya man to return to Myanmar. And when will he go back? The answer is that when he receives the travel documents from the Myanmar government. I think that’s some weeks away,” said Sopheak.
The statement by Cambodia will prove some relief for Australia’s government, whose policy to “stop the boats” helped propel it to victory at the last election.
Yet Cambodia’s pledge to accept more refugees is hardly groundbreaking – it merely reiterates what it has long said under the existing, secretive agreement: that it will take a limited number of people and only if they volunteer to come to Cambodia.
The deal, which the two countries toasted with champagne in a rushed ceremony in Phnom Penh a year ago, has been criticized on numerous grounds by rights organizations, church groups, and opposition politicians in both countries.
The U.N. refugee agency says the deal undermines the principles of the refugee convention, to which both nations are a signatory.
Under the agreement, Australia agreed to pay all resettlement costs for a year, and pledged to give those who signed up thousands of dollars in cash, as well as language and skills training, and health insurance.
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.