Australia’s immigration minister admitted for the first time Wednesday that negotiations over a controversial plan to shunt refugees trying to reach Australia’s shores to Cambodia were proving “frustrating,” according to media reports.
In February, during a visit from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Cambodia first broke the news of Australia’s request that it take asylum seekers Australia was holding offshore. Unconfirmed media reports have claimed that Australia is offering Cambodia as much as $40 million to accept the refugees.
While both countries have been tightlipped about the plan’s details, Cambodian officials have periodically said a deal was imminent.
Late last month, however, Interior Minister Sar Kheng told reporters there were “still a lot of things to discuss” about the plan, and that Cambodia wanted more details about the nationalities of the possible new arrivals and how they would be cared for once resettled.
Addressing the National Press Club of Australia on Wednesday, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who until now has issued only brief but optimistic forecasts for the pending deal, also conceded that negotiations were progressing slowly.
“There’s still distance to travel. It’s frustrating, but I’m confident we’ll get there,” the Australian Associated Press (AAP) quoted him as saying.
“This isn’t about just putting people somewhere and looking the other way,” he said.
Mr. Kheng declined to comment Thursday.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he knew nothing about the negotiations.
Based on the few details of the plan that have emerged, Cambodia is insisting that refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centers be resettled in Cambodia voluntarily.
Even so, the plan has been roundly rebuked by rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries. They say Austra- lia would be shirking its respon- sibility to the refugees and that Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, is ill-equipped to properly care for them.
The Cambodian opposition has been shut out of the negotiations, but CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay Thursday speculated that the government may never have been serious about striking a deal and only agreed to enter negotiations to repay Australia, which was quick to endorse the ruling CPP’s contested victory in last year’s national elections.
“I always wondered from the beginning why the [Cambodian] government was interested in taking refugees,” Mr. Chhay said.
“But the government is reluctant now to make any agreement. It’s quite clear the government has no interest,” he said.
Mr. Chhay said it was also possible that the government was holding out for a better deal.
“Maybe it’s too little money,” he said. “Perhaps the deal is not benefiting the officials involved.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Khy Sovuthy)