An Iranian husband and wife are the latest refugees to return home after being resettled in Phnom Penh as part of an expensive deal between Cambodia and Australia, immigration officials said Monday.
Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said the Iranian couple had voluntarily gone back to their home country.
“They [are] back already,” he said. “They wanted to return back home. You ask me why, I don’t know.”
General Phal said the couple left Cambodia in either late February or early March.
It is unclear why they left Iran in the first place, and Gen. Phal said he was not aware of any efforts to guarantee their safe return but believed they were in contact with relatives in their home country before deciding to depart Cambodia.
“We don’t know well about the situation over there,” he said.
Tan Sovichea, head of the immigration department’s refugee office, said the husband and wife left in February, but that he also did not know why they chose to return home.
“They volunteered to go back,” he said. “The pair did not tell us the reason why they left Cambodia; they just told us they volunteered to return home.”
Spokespeople for Australia’s Immigration Department did not reply to a request for comment. The International Organization for Migration, which has been helping the refugees resettle in Cambodia, declined to answer questions about the return.
The Iranian couple’s decision to give up the chance at a new life in Cambodia means that there is now only one person, also an Iranian man, remaining from the original group of four refugees who came to Cambodia from Australian detention centers on the Pacific island of Nauru in June last year.
The fourth person in the group, an ethnic Rohingya man from Burma, decided to return home in October, despite the fact that the Burmese government does not recog- nize the citizenship rights of Rohingya and keeps them in apartheid conditions. A second Rohingya man came to Cambodia in November.
At the time of the original Rohingya man’s return, Cambodian authorities said he had grown homesick. But refugee rights advocates said authorities had made a poor effort to help him integrate, even ignoring their offers to introduce him to other Rohingya in the country.
Since the Iranian couple arrived in Cambodia in June, Tehran has taken significant steps to shed its international pariah status, striking a deal with Washington to allow stepped-up inspections of its nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of crippling Western sanctions. Recent elections in Iran have also weakened the hand of conservatives in favor of moderates and reformists.
The refugees sent to Cambodia from Nauru were part of a deal Cambodia sealed in September 2014 to take an unspecified number of the refugees Australia is holding on the island in exchange for an additional AU$40 million—or about $29.6 million—in aid.
Opposition lawmakers and rights groups in both Cambodia and Australia have criticized the deal from the start, accusing Canberra of shirking its international obligations to asylum seekers trying to reach its shores by shunting them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.
Some critics say the scheme was never meant to offer the refugees on Nauru a viable resettlement option, but rather to deter other would-be refugees from trying to reach Australia, which is refusing to take them in.
Ian Rintoul, of the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, said the deal had always been an “extraordinarily expensive farce” and that even the few refugees who took up the offer to move to Cambodia likely saw it as nothing more than a stepping stone to another country.
“The Cambodia deal has been dead in the water since the Iranians were sent there. But it suited both governments to pretend that resettlement in Cambodia was a possibility,” he said. “Maybe this announcement means that [it] will finally be buried.”
Gen. Phal said no other refugees on Nauru had volunteered to come to Cambodia since the second Rohingya man arrived in November, but that the government would welcome any who did.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)