Australia Thanks Cambodia for Agreeing to Take Refugees

Australia’s foreign affairs minister thanked Prime Minister Hun Sen on the sidelines of a meeting in Italy over the weekend for agreeing to resettle ref­ugees seeking asylum in Aus­tralia, and stressed that the transfers would be on a voluntary basis.

Cambodia signed the controversial deal last month, agreeing to take in an unspecified number of asylum seekers Australia is currently holding offshore on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru over the next four years in exchange for an additional $40 million in aid.

Rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries have criticized the deal, and hundreds of people protested against the plan on Friday, accusing the government of agreeing to ac­cept refugees when it is incapable of taking care of its own people.

While Cambodians were pro­testing in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen was discussing the deal with Aus­tralian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop in Milan, be­tween meetings of the 10th AsiaEurope Meeting Summit.

“Julie Isabel Bishop expressed profound thanks to the Royal Gov­ern­ment of Cambodia for having signed recently with Australia the Memorandum of Understanding [MoU] relating to the settlement of refugees in Cambodia,” state news outlet Agence Kampuchea Presse re­ported on Saturday.

“The Government of Australia will continue to cooperate more closely with Cambodia to carry out the MoU in the spirit of re­sponsibility and on a voluntary basis, not by force,” she affirmed.

At a press conference at Phnom Penh International Airport, Kao Kim Hourn, a minister delegated to the prime minister who re­turned from the trip with Mr. Hun Sen on Sunday morning, confirmed that the meeting took place, but declined to elaborate on the refugee deal.

Contacted by telephone Sunday, Sok Phal, the Interior Ministry’s head of immigration, said the government was still planning to send a delegation to Nauru by the end of the year to meet with refugees who may want to resettle in Cambodia, and was only waiting on Aus­tralia to make travel arrangements. As stipulated in the MoU, Australia will pick up the tab for the trip, along with most other costs of resettling the refugees in Cambodia.

“We don’t know anything yet. The Australian side has to organize the trip for us to visit Na­uru,” General Phal said.

Despite vows from both countries that any transfers will be strictly voluntary, rights groups working with the refugees on Nauru say they are being pressured to accept the offer.

“The people I am in touch with are being told that if they don’t agree to go to Cambodia they will rot in the internment camp on Nauru. So even if people are not literally handcuffed and forced onto a plane, the level of coercion they are under does, in my opinion, amount to forcing people,” said Victoria Iverson, media officer for the Refugee Rights Action Network, based in Australia.

Ms. Iverson passed on what she said was a note from an asylum seek­er on Nauru she re­ceived through social media on October 11: “Today immigration officials came and told us that you all will be sent to Cam­bodia, everyone’s devastated…. Some officers warned us that if we don’t stop protesting they will start beating us. Please tell the journalists…. Here the tension is high and security have [sic] increased. It’s just like hell!”

A spokesman for Australia’s im­migration minister, Scott Morrison, who came to Phnom Penh to sign the MoU with Cambodia last month, did not immediately reply to a re­quest for comment.

On the subject of Mr. Hun Sen’s trip to Italy, Mr. Kim Hourn said the prime minister also met with his Thai counterpart, General Prayut Chanocha.

He said the general, who led the overthrow of the elected government in Bangkok in May, reiterated Thailand’s interest in setting up a special economic zone along his coun­try’s shared border with Cam­bodia.

Mr. Hun Sen asked the general to root out the source of some $7 million in counterfeit U.S. currency confiscated in Cambodia last month, and to form yet another joint commission to ne­gotiate border disputes.

Mr. Kim Hourn said the prime minister also invited Gen. Chanocha to pay a state visit to Cam­bodia later this month.

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