Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, signed a memorandum of understanding in Phnom Penh on Friday afternoon finalizing a deal to have refugees who sought asylum in Australia sent to Cambodia from the South Pacific island of Nauru, where they are currently being held.
Shortly before 3:30 p.m., the two arrived in an extravagantly decorated room at the Ministry of Interior where, without saying a word, they signed the documents that will determine the fate of perhaps hundreds of refugees.
Breaking the silence was the smashing of champagne glasses as a waiter tripped. Mr. Kheng and Mr. Morrison declined to answer a barrage of questions from members of the media as they left the room.
A joint statement released at the signing says: “The number and timing of Refugees settlement will be determined by Cambodia,” adding that the two countries have agreed to “an initial trial arrangement with a small group of refuges which will be followed by further resettlement in accordance with the Cambodia’s capacity.”
According to the statement, Mr. Morrison said that refugees currently being held off of Australia’s shores “will now have the opportunity and support to re-establish their lives free from prosecution.”
In the statement, Australia’s immigration minister goes on to defend Cambodia as a destination for refugees.
“As a party to the Refugees Convention, Cambodia, while making countless efforts to develop the country after civil war, is demonstrating its ability and willingness to contribute positively to this humanitarian issue.” the statement quotes Mr. Morrison as saying.
On Friday morning, Mr. Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Australia plans to send a further $40 million in aid to Cambodia over the next four years. But he denied that it would be used to facilitate the transfers and said instead it would be used on development projects.
The statement released at Friday’s signing ceremony says that, as part of the agreement, “Australia will bear the direct costs of the arrangement, including initial support for refugees, and relevant capacity building for Cambodia to ensure it has the appropriate resources to receive and integrate the refugees successfully.”
Mr. Morrison and Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong have also said that any transfers of refugees would be strictly on a voluntary basis.
But the deal, which was made without the input of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, has been widely condemned by civil society groups and opposition politicians in both countries, who say that it breaches the 1951 refugee convention, and that Cambodia is ill-equipped to ensure the well-being of refugees.
In a joint statement issued Thursday by UNICEF Australia, Save the Children and Amnesty International, Alastair Nicholson, a former chief justice of the Family Court in Australia, said: “This planned deal is inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal.”
“It is inappropriate because Cambodia has no capacity within its social sector to take an influx of refugees, immoral because these vulnerable people are Australia’s responsibility, and while we await the details it appears illegal in contravening Australia’s humanitarian and refugee obligations to vulnerable children and families,” Mr. Nicholson is quoted as saying in the statement.