After Visit, Refugee Deal Still Shrouded in Doubt

In 2001, Australia’s then-conservative government first introduced its “Pacific Solution” as a way of stopping an influx of asylum seekers attempting to reach its shores by boat—and as a way of winning votes during an election defined by wedge politics.

The country’s prime minister at the time, John Howard, said during a now-infamous campaign speech that year that Australians “would decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”

For seven years, the policy, which included the controversial detention of men, women and children in “offshore processing centers” on the South Pacific island of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea, persisted until it was rolled back—then reinstituted—by successive Labor governments.

Today, Cambodia is facing the prospect of becoming the third impoverished country in the region to take on Australia’s refugee burden, after the two governments signed a deal in September that could see refugees currently being held on Nauru permanently resettled here in exchange for a $35 million aid package from Australia.

According to a statement released by Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Friday, following a one-day visit to meet with government officials in Phnom Penh on Thursday, arrangements for the first group of refugees to be relocated “are expected to be finalized in coming weeks.”

During his visit, Mr. Dutton also met with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a global body that counts Cambodia, Australia and Nauru among its 157 member states and that has agreed to facilitate the resettlement of any refugees who volunteer to come.

“Together with IOM, Australia and Cambodia are advancing the arrangement and committed to its smooth and successful implementation,” Mr. Dutton said in the statement.

After the U.N.’s refugee agency refused to facilitate the deal, the IOM agreed to step in, saying its primary concern was upholding the dignity of the refugees.

However, refugee advocate Ian Rintoul called the organization’s involvement “a joke,” pointing to the fact that it played a major role in the controversial Pacific Solution, running the detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island under the Howard government. It has not administered the centers since 2008, but maintains a presence on the islands.

Mr. Rintoul, from the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, said the IOM is driven largely by economic considerations and has little credibility with asylum seekers, who view it as untrustworthy as a result of its connection to the Pacific Solution.

“The IOM has been around a long time, but effectively they are hired by the governments to implement their policies,” Mr. Rintoul said. “They try to associate themselves with the U.N. and the UNHCR; it’s a complete myth.”

Asylum seekers on both islands are wary, he said, of IOM staffers who have worked in tandem with Australia, offering them money on the government’s behalf to return to their countries of origin.

“They trawl the compounds essentially coercing people to go home; they operate as an extension of the immigration department,” Mr. Rintoul said.

IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry, who is based in Bangkok, denied Mr. Rintoul’s account but said in an email that “the option of Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) is available to the majority of asylum seekers should they wish to avail of it.”

According to the IOM’s website, the program includes “awareness-raising for AVRR” in host nations, assistance with travel arrangements, and “socio-economic support” for returnees once they reach their country of origin.

The IOM has stressed that it has only one staff member on Nauru, whose job it is to accommodate those who decide to take up AVRR, and that it would not be discussing the Cambodian resettlement option with refugees.

“Our role is neither to encourage nor discourage people from coming but to provide services for them if they decide to come,” Mr. Lowry said.

“IOM’s involvement starts after voluntary decision by refugees to settle to Cambodia. We believe our involvement will provide for improved settlement outcome for the refugees who volunteer to settle.”

Yet when Cambodian officials traveled to Nauru in January, just three of the 400-odd refugees living in the community there even agreed to meet with them. According to Mr. Dutton’s statement, another Cambodian delegation is expected to travel to Nauru “within weeks” to speak to the refugees about settlement options in Cambodia.

And Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said on Thursday that the governments had agreed to test the waters by sending a group of five families here ahead of any other volunteers.

However, an Iranian refugee, who has been on Nauru for 17 months, including three months living outside the detention center after she was determined to be a “genuine refugee,” said in interviews conducted online over the past week that no one there wanted to come to Cambodia.

“We thought [the] Australian government is going to accept us with open arms. We have not come through this journey to go [to] Cambodia,” said the woman, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of her situation.

“We had some issue with [our] government, otherwise we wouldn’t leave our country to go to a poor country,” she added.

The refugee said that the situation on Nauru was “very poor.” Hundreds of refugees took to the streets there last week to demonstrate against “slave-like” conditions on the island, according to Australian media reports. Nearly 200 people were arrested over the protests, including women and children, before charges were laid against 174 people, the Guardian Australia reported.

A U.N. report released last week found that Australia is in violation of the international Convention Against Torture due to its detention of children in immigration centers.

The Australia-Cambodia deal has been strongly criticized by opposition lawmakers and rights groups in both countries, who note that Cambodia has a poor track record with protecting the human rights of its own citizens, let alone refugees.

Australia’s Mr. Dutton, however, said in Friday’s statement that he sees things differently.

“In particular, I recognize Cambodia’s progression within a single generation from a devastating civil war, through the rebuilding and reconstruction of their society, to a member of the international community taking a leadership position in protecting the vulnerable,” he said in the statement.

Mr. Rintoul, the refugee advocate, said he believed that not only were the refugees hoping the deal would flounder, but that both governments were also banking on the deal falling through.

“The Australian government is not serious. It is entirely for domestic purposes,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone expects [the refugees] to go, least of all the Cambodian government. They’ll just take the $40 million [in Australian dollars] and put it in their pocket, and say, ‘Okay, next.’”

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