Cambodia Ready to Vet More Nauru Refugees

Cambodia is ready to start vetting more of the refugees Australia is hoping to resettle here from Nauru under a controversial deal between the two countries, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen said after the premier met with visiting Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Wednesday.

Mr. Dutton’s visit came unannounced, and followed widespread media reports that the high-profile deal might be on the verge of collapse after Cambodia said it would not accept any more refugees until the first four—who arrived in June—were fully integrated.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton at Mr Hun Sen's office building in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Khem Sovannara)
Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton at Mr Hun Sen’s office building in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Khem Sovannara)

It also emerged last week that one of the original four, a Rohingya man who fled Burma hoping to reach Aus­tralia, had requested to go home.

Mr. Hun Sen’s adviser, Srey Tham­rong, said the process of settling in the first four refugees, who remain sequestered inside a gated compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, had stalled the process.

“We want Australia to send over more volunteers. But we are facing difficulties in bringing more here because of the integration of the first four refugees, who are not yet able to speak Khmer,” Mr. Thamrong told reporters.

Under the deal Cambodia signed with Australia a year ago—to take an unspecified number of refugees Aus­tralia is holding on Nauru for an additional AU$40 million ($28.1 million) in aid—the refugees are not to leave their temporary accommodations in Phnom Penh until they have a working grasp of the lo­cal language.

The deal does not specify wheth­er the first group should be settled in before more refugees can arrive, though it does let Cambodia set the pace.

Refugee rights groups with contacts on Nauru say few refugees have arrived in Cambodia because none of them wants to come, and that the four who came in June took the offer only after being lied to about life here and with the promise of thousands of dollars.

Despite the modest progress, Mr. Thamrong insisted that the deal was alive and well, and that more refugees were in the pipeline.

“We want Australia to send more people to Cambodia, and it can send a group of four or five people,” he said. “We will send our people from the Interior Ministry [to Nauru] to interview the volunteer refugees before bringing them to Cambodia.”

Mr. Thamrong did not say when the delegation would make the trip.

Mr. Dutton also met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who is handling Cambodia’s side of the deal, earlier in the day.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he did not attend the meeting, however, and had no idea what was discussed. Officials at the ministry’s immigration department also said they knew nothing about Mr. Kheng’s meeting.

Neither Mr. Dutton’s office nor the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh replied to a request for comment.

In an interview with Reuters late last month—around the time General Sopheak told local media that Cambodia had no “plans to import more refugees”—Mr. Dutton said more refugees were ready to make the trip.

“There are other people in Nau­ru now who are prepared to go to Cambodia and we’re working through the detail of that with the officials,” he was quoted as saying at the time.

Australia’s deal with Cambodia is part of its staunch efforts to discourage asylum seekers from trying to reach its shores. Rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries, however, have accused Australia of shirking its international obligations and rebuked the deal for shunting the refugees on Nauru to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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