As Refugees Spurn Cambodia, Locals Voice Opposition to Deal

As refugees being held by Australia on the South Pacific island of Nauru continue to spurn the prospect of resettling in Cambodia, many Cambodians likewise say they do not want to see any of the refugees sent to their country.

In September, Canberra and Phnom Penh signed a deal that would allow the refugees, who had been sent to an offshore detention center on Nauru to have their asylum applications processed, to resettle in Cambodia on a voluntary basis. In return, Australia pledged an additional $35 million in aid over four years.

The agreement has been roundly criticized by rights groups and opposition parties in both countries. A recent trip by Cambodian officials to Nauru failed to win over any of the 400-odd refugees living in the community.

And residents of Cambodia’s capital appear similarly resistant.

In a series of interviews conducted in Phnom Penh on Friday, no one—including a tuk-tuk driver, a pharmacist and a laundromat owner—expressed support for the plan.

Prum Chanthy, 30, who manages a restaurant on Street 178 in Daun Penh district, said Cambodia was simply too poor to take on Australia’s refugee burden.

“We are afraid [refugees] will provoke problems such as terrorism and insecurity in our country because we do not know their backgrounds,” Ms. Chanthy said.

“I wouldn’t hire them as staff because I want to help Khmer people. You will have seen that some students don’t have jobs when they finish school,” she added.

A sculptor, who has a studio on Street 19 and gave his name only as Pov, noted that Cambodia was unable to adequately provide for its own citizens.

“Our own people do not have proper housing; some live on the sidewalk,” the 33-year-old said.

“Australia is a rich country and they have good laws and they can take care [of refugees] better than Cambodia,” he said.

In a short documentary film released last week by Welcome to Australia, an Adelaide-based advocacy group, Cambodians interviewed express similar sentiments. The documentary follows a young Cambodian musician as he meets with members of the public both in the capital and in the countryside.

One woman in Prey Veng province, who is not named in the film, describes how she and her two adult children—both migrant workers—struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

“I don’t know why they are sending refugees to our country when it’s already crowded,” she says.

Joel Polkinghorne, the documentary’s Australian director, said that he and other crew members spoke to numerous Cambodians about the issue while shooting over a two week period in January, not just those who feature in the film.

“A lot of them said they weren’t aware [of the refugee deal], a lot of them said, ‘We don’t care what the government does, we are pretty much preoccupied with living our own lives and trying to survive,’ and then there were a few who didn’t want to weigh in from a political point of view,” he said.

In many cases, Mr. Polkinghorne said, once people heard an explanation of the deal, they were opposed to it going ahead.

“There was a sense of, ‘Well, we don’t have much already, but whatever we have is going to be reduced even further,’” he said of the fears of one respondent.

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