Eight months after a contentious deal was signed to move to Cambodia refugees that Australia had been holding on the island nation of Nauru, the resettlement applications of the first four refugees to volunteer for the scheme have been approved, Cambodia’s Interior Ministry said Thursday.
The ministry has been vetting the refugees—a Rohingya man and three Iranians—since they volunteered to be transferred from the South Pacific island in late April. It said its main concern was to make sure they were healthy and not criminals.
“I have received approval from my government that four people—four refugees—should come to resettle permanently in Cambodia,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Thursday. “The approval comes from Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 20.”
General Sopheak said Cambodia and Australia were still in talks over exactly when the refugees would arrive.
The four refugees approved for resettlement will be the first to move to Cambodia under the transfer deal Canberra and Phnom Penh signed last year, in which Cambodia agreed to take in an unspecified number of the hundreds of refugees Australia is detaining on Nauru and refusing to resettle itself.
Australia has agreed to cover the expenses of refugees who take up the offer for at least a year and offered Cambodia an additional $31.6 million aid package for agreeing to take them.
An Australian refugee advocacy group claims that the four refugees were transferred to Darwin over a week ago, likely in preparation for their move to Cambodia, but neither country has confirmed the report.
The deal has been widely criticized by rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries, who accuse Australia of shirking its international obligations for asylum seekers trying to reach its shores by shunting them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
Australia has also come under heavy rebuke for circulating a letter on Nauru—just before the four refugees volunteered—selling them on the idea of moving to Cambodia by painting an overly generous picture of living conditions in the country.
The letter claimed that Cambodians “have high standards of healthcare” and “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society” including free speech, and that the country “does not have problems with violent crime.” The Australian government’s own travel advice on Cambodia says just the opposite.
Another Australian refugee advocacy group in touch with people on Nauru said the volunteers were also offered thousands of dollars to take up the Cambodia offer and that, as asylum seekers, they may have had their refugee applications fast-tracked in order to make them eligible for the program.
Cambodian officials had made two unsuccessful prior visits to Nauru before finding the four volunteers in April.