Cambodia, Australia to Sign Refugee Deal on Friday

Cambodia will sign a long-awaited agreement with Australia on Friday to resettle some of the refugees Australia is currently holding offshore, a deal that has drawn heavy rebuke from the U.N., human rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry announced in a statement Wednesday morning that Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, will be in Cambodia on Friday to sign the memorandum of understanding with Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

In February, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong first broke news of Australia’s request for Cambodia to take some of the asylum seekers that have tried to reach its shores during a visit from Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. The two countries have been locked in secret negotiations since.

Neither country has said how many refugees Cambodia would take off of Australia’s hands or where in the country it would settle them, and Wednesday’s statement sheds no light on those questions. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong declined to offer further details.

Unconfirmed news reports have claimed that Cambodia would resettle as many as 1,000 refugees being held on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru in return for $40 million.

Last week, Australia’s assistant secretary for foreign affairs, Keith Scott, was in Phnom Penh for meetings about his country’s 2015-2018 aid package for Cambodia, though neither side would say whether the refugee deal was discussed.

Despite the dearth of details, the refugee plan has been roundly criticized by NGOs and opposition politicians, who say Australia is shirking its international obligations to ensure that the asylum seekers are resettled in a country that can guarantee their safety.

They accuse Australia of ignoring the Cambodian government’s history of human rights abuses to make the deal happen, and of sending the refugees to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.

Cambodia also has a poor record on handling asylum seekers. In 2009, Cambodia forcibly deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China before thoroughly assessing their asylum claims.

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Correction: A previous version of this story said that Foreign Minister Hor Namhong would sign the memorandum of understanding with Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison.

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