Cambodia will sign a long-awaited agreement with Australia on Friday to resettle some of the refugees Australia is currently holding offshore, a deal that has drawn heavy rebuke from the U.N., rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry announced Wednesday that Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will be in Cambodia on Friday to sign the memorandum of understanding with Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Morrison confirmed his travel plans.
“[T]he minister will be traveling to Cambodia on Friday,” the spokeswoman said. “Further details will be provided following the signing of an agreement.”
Koy Kuong, spokesman for Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, also declined to elaborate on the deal that would be signed. General Sok Phal, who heads the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, referred questions to ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak, who could not be reached.
The two countries have revealed almost no details about the plan since news of Australia’s request broke in February during a visit to Cambodia by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. Yesterday’s news of a signing ceremony, however, came within weeks of comments from both sides suggesting fraught negotiations.
Late last month, Mr. Kheng said there were “still a lot of things to discuss” about the plan, including details about how the new arrivals would be cared for. During a talk at the National Press Club of Australia two weeks ago, Mr. Morrison called the negotiations “frustrating.”
But even after Wednesday’s announcement, neither side would say how many refugees Cambodia will receive, where they will stay, or what Australia will do to help Cambodia settle them into their new lives.
Despite the dearth of details, the deal has been criticized from the start by NGOs and politicians in both countries.
Last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been left out of the negotiations and denied a copy of the plan, said Australia’s attempt to shirk responsibility for the asylum seekers sets a dangerous global precedent.
“We strongly believe that asylum seekers should have their claims processed in the territory in which they arrive. If found to be refugees, they should be offered protection there, with the full rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention,” said Vivian Tan, a press officer for the UNHCR in Bangkok.
“Bilateral agreements that seek to shift the responsibility for protecting refugees set a worrying precedent for the global refugee system,” she added. “At a time of massive displacement in places like Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, burden-sharing is crucial to meeting these growing humanitarian needs.”
Critics of the transfer have also accused Australia of ignoring Cambodia’s deplorable human rights record to move the deal forward. They say, too, that Cambodia, one of the poorest nations in Asia and most corrupt countries in the world, is ill equipped to take proper care of its own citizens, let alone refugees.
Twenty percent of Cambodians live in poverty, according to the World Bank. However, the University of New South Wales’ Andrew and Renata Center for International Refugee Law, in Australia, puts the proportion of Cambodians living in “multidimensional poverty,” taking into account health and education standards, at nearly half.
Joyce Chea, a senior research associate at the center, on Wednesday said she agreed with the UNHCR that the deal between Cambodia and Australia undermined international refugee law, and that she had serious concerns about Australia “shifting its international legal responsibilities to a poor, developing country with serious human rights issues.”
“A key principle of refugee law and policy is that refugees need ‘durable solutions,’ which goes beyond immediate protection from harm,” Ms. Chea said.
“Australia is very well equipped to provide these solutions, with its long history of resettling and integrating refugees, and is much better placed than Cambodia in this respect,” she said. “Issues of high unemployment, poverty, ability to speak the language… pose real difficulties in terms of enabling Cambodia to provide such durable solutions.”
Letting the refugees settle in Australia, Ms. Chea said, would not only fall in line with Canberra’s legal obligations but also prove “simpler, cheaper and fairer.”
However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott campaigned heavily last year on a pledge to “stop the boats,” referring to the refugee-laden ships aiming for his country’s shores. In April, Mr. Morrison said the right to resettle was not a ticket to a better life in a first world country.
But rights groups say Cambodia is doing a poor job taking care of the few dozen refugees it already has, denying them the paperwork they need to obtain further schooling and find work, condemning them to the country’s already swollen underclass.
“The creation of a new group living below the poverty line causes misery and, predictably, social unrest,” said Denise Coghlan, who runs the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh and also opposes the deal.
Ms. Coghlan said Cambodia’s promise in May to take in only those refugees who volunteered to come was a positive move. And with the deal now all but signed, she offered a few recommendations to make the transfers as tolerable as possible.
She said Cambodia and Australia should avoid placing the refugees in “institutionalized” accommodations with guards or other restrictions on their movement, and provide them with all the documents they need to fully integrate, a chance at citizenship, one-off aid packages on arrival, help finding work and assistance with family reunification.
“Our baseline is that Australia should be looking after the refugees who sought protection and asylum [from] Australia,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s spokesperson was a man.