On the eve of the signing of a controversial agreement between Phnom Penh and Canberra that will see Cambodia resettle refugees Australia is currently holding offshore, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday defended the deal against mounting international criticism.
Mr. Morrison will arrive in Phnom Penh today to sign the deal with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng, some seven months after the two countries started negotiations.
Since news of the plan broke in February, rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries have accused Australia of shirking its obligations to the refugees by attempting to send them to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
At a press conference in Canberra on Thursday, Mr. Morrison reiterated that the deal would only apply to those refugees who volunteered to relocate to Cambodia.
“There will be no surprises. The arrangement is strictly voluntary. Anyone who chooses to go to Cambodia will have chosen themselves to go to Cambodia,” he said, according to a transcript posted to the minister’s official website.
Mr. Morrison said refugees who volunteered would be provided all the assistance they needed to get on their feet, and defended his country’s record on resettlement.
“Support will be tailored to the needs of those as part of a package of measures that will go to their resettlement, which is designed to make them self-reliant as quickly as possible,” he said. “They will be afforded all the same rights under Cambodian law and those that exist under the Refugee Convention. There is no cap on what has been discussed here. This will be an ongoing, developing relationship.
“This is a country, Australia, who has the best record on resettlement of any country, proudly, in the world, working together with another refugee signatory country in our region to help them develop the capability to resettle refugees.”
But the minister again refused to reveal details about the deal, which has remained shrouded in secrecy.
Unconfirmed media reports claimed Cambodia would take as many as 1,000 refugees being held on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru in return for $40 million.
Speaking on the sidelines of an unrelated event in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Mr. Kheng said the first phase of the deal would involve no more than five people.
“We will just have a pilot project with four to five, or two to three people,” he said, declining to comment further.
Amid the continued secrecy, international rights groups on Thursday continued to attack the plan, saying it was nothing short of illegal.
“This planned deal is inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal,” Alastair Nicholson, a former chief justice of the Family Court in Australia, said in a joint-statement released by UNICEF Australia, Save the Children and others.
“It is inappropriate because Cambodia has no capacity within its social sector to take an influx of refugees, immoral because these vulnerable people are Australia’s responsibility, and while we await the details it appears illegal in contravening Australia’s humanitarian and refugee obligations to vulnerable children and families.”
Citing Cambodia’s high child malnutrition rate and low secondary-school enrollment, Mr. Nicholson called the deal “completely unsustainable.”
“When you choose to place refugee children in the care of a country already dependent on the international donor community for supporting its own children, you make a clear choice to put refugee children and their families at serious risk,” he said.
In a statement of its own on Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Australia’s new accord with Cambodia would violate its existing deal with Nauru, which commits Australia to helping resettle refugees in “a third safe country.”
The organization says Cambodia is anything but.
“The Hun Sen government severely restricts the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and state security forces routinely commit killings, torture and other abuses with impunity,” HRW says. “Those living on the margins—including refugees and asylum seekers lacking employment, Khmer language skills and a social network—are at particular risk.”
It says there were 1,233 asylum seekers being held in detention centers on Nauru as of August 31, and that Nauru had thus far recognized only 206 of them as legitimate refugees.
In yet another statement released Thursday, Amnesty International notes alleged abuses occurring at those centers, saying Cambodia would be “complicit” in their human rights breaches by signing the deal with Australia.
Amnesty observes, too, that Australia condemned Cambodia’s human rights record at a U.N. human rights hearing in January, the same month military police shot into a crowd of rock-throwing garment workers protesting for higher wages in Phnom Penh, killing at least five people and injuring dozens.
Opposition to Cambodia’s plans to take in the refugees has also continued to grow at home.
The Independent Monks Network for Social Justices said it will organize protests against the deal this morning in front of the National Assembly, Interior Ministry and Australian Embassy.
“We will protest against the settlement of refugees in Cambodia because it is the poorest country and has not yet found peace for its own citizens, who suffer from land grabs and always gets assistance from abroad. So how can the government take in 1,000 refugees?” said Keo Somaly, a monk and member of the group.
Cambodia and Australia are set to sign off on the deal at the Ministry of Interior at 3 p.m.