Cambodia Asked to Take in Australian Asylum Seekers

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Saturday that he would consider a request that Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the region and one with a spotty record in handling refugees, take in some of the refugees seeking asylum in Australia.

Australia’s visiting foreign minister, Julie Bishop, made the request during a meeting with the prime minister on Saturday morning.

“[Ms. Bishop] met with the prime minister and she raised the issue of sending to Cambodia asylum seekers who have gone to Australia,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters after his own meeting with Ms. Bishop.

“Previously it’s been Cambodians who have sought asylum in other countries; now maybe it is time that Cambodia accept asylum seekers,” he said. “[Mr. Hun Sen] told [Ms. Bishop] this morning that Cambodia will carefully consider the request by Australia.”

Ms. Bishop did not mention the asylum request at the press conference and neither she nor Mr. Namhong took questions.

At a separate press conference earlier in the morning, Hun Sen’s personal spokesman, Eang Sophalleth, said Ms. Bishop asked Cambodia to take only a “small number” of “legal” asylum seekers but did not elaborate.

He said Mr. Hun Sen would form a committee to consider the request and had asked Australia to send over a delegation to discuss the proposal further with Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

How to handle the boatloads of asylum seekers has become a hot button issue in Australia, where a pledge to “stop the boats” helped sweep Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Liberal Party to power last year.

But Denise Coghlan, who heads the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, called Australia’s request “preposterous” and a breach of its obligations as a signatory to the U.N.’s Refugee Convention.

“It [Australia] should be processing people coming to its shores on its shores and not asking other countries, especially countries with fewer resources, with less legal competence, with less structure to deal with these issues,” she said.

Rights groups raised alarms when Cambodia took over full responsibility for processing its own asylum seekers from the U.N. in 2011.

Ms. Coghlan commended the Cambodian government for accepting the applications of most of the Rohingya who have fled here seeking refuge from deadly persecution in Burma since then, a modest 21 people in all. But that did not mean the government was prepared to handle all comers, she warned.

“When the refugees come from politically sensitive countries like China or Vietnam,” Ms. Coghlan said, “their [Cambodia’s] record is very bad.”

Cambodia was widely criticized for abruptly deporting 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China at gunpoint in 2009. Rights groups said the Uighurs were shipped out before their claims were properly investigated. The government insisted each was given due process.

In the early and mid-2000s, hundreds of Montagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands were forced back across the border by Cambodian authorities, who said they should be considered economic migrants rather than refugees.

U.S. advocacy group Human Rights Watch has also criticized a 2009 sub-decree for giving the Cambodian government too many reasons for which to deny refugee status, and too few safeguards to protect against wrongful removal.

Australia itself has faced international rebuke for its use of offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru to hold and process asylum seekers it intercepts.

An asylum seeker was killed and dozens injured during a riot at one center in Papua New Guinea earlier this month. The U.N. said the center should be shut down.

With details of Australia’s designs for Cambodia still sketchy, Ms. Coghlan said the Abbott government might actually be trying to offload some people whom Australia has already given legal refugee status.

“That makes me angrier still,” she said. “Here’s Australia, that’s so rich, with so much space…and here they are trying to offload these people like so much refuse where they’re not going to have much of a chance. It’s crazy.”

She said it would also place an unfair burden on a country where 40 percent of children are malnourished, according to the U.N., one in five people live below the poverty line, and thousands of protesting garment workers have recently been willing to face down riot police to demand a living wage.

Australian Embassy spokesman Simon Fellows declined to comment on or even to confirm his government’s request of Cambodia and referred to an official statement on Ms. Bishop’s visit.

That statement makes no mention of the asylum request and notes only vaguely that Mr. Hun Sen and Ms. Bishop broached the subject of illegal migration.

“There has been a significant level of cooperation between relevant agencies on people smuggling matters and we will continue to work through the Bali Process to manage processing of illegal maritime arrivals and returns,” it said.

Australia’s opposition Greens party went so far Sunday as to accuse the Liberal government of appeasing Mr. Hun Sen’s “anti-democratic regime,” and keeping quiet about the alleged electoral fraud that returned him to power in July, in order to smooth the way for an asylum deal, Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported.

After backing the Cambodian opposition’s call for an impartial probe of the election results—which still has yet to happen—Mr. Abbott sent Mr. Hun Sen a letter in October congratulating him on his victory.

Since then, tens of thousands of opposition supporters, who believe Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP in fact lost the election, have marched through Phnom Penh demanding that the prime minister step down or call fresh polls. The government has refused both suggestions and early last month imposed a ban on protests and demonstrations.

At Saturday’s press conference, Ms. Bishop said she planned to discuss Cambodia’s current political situation with the interior minister that afternoon, but neither she nor the embassy statement elaborated on this.

Mr. Namhong said Cambodia had asked Australia to send election experts to advise the country on electoral reforms, a key sticking point between the CPP and opposition.

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