Criticism Grows Over Australia’s Refugee Request

The Australian government continued to draw fire at home Monday for asking Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the region, to make a home for some of the thousands of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia’s shores.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen during a private meeting in Phnom Penh on Saturday and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said the government would “carefully consider” the idea.

In Australia, opposition Greens leader Christine Milne on Monday accused the ruling Liberals of “appeasing a regime engaged in human rights abuses” to try and make the deal happen, according to The West Australian.

Labor lawmaker Kelvin Thomson also accused the Liberals of “political opportunism” and some hypocrisy after having blocked government efforts to reach a people-swap with Malaysia when it was in opposition, the paper reported.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles complained that Australians were learning more about Ms. Bishop’s request from the foreign media than from the Australian Foreign Ministry.

To date, only Cambodian officials have commented on Australia’s request. Ms. Bishop declined to take questions at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Saturday.

A statement the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh issued immediately after Ms. Bishop’s visit mentions only that she spoke with Cambodian officials about tackling people smuggling and illegal maritime migration, among other topics.

Asked for more details, an embassy spokesman referred to the statement on Sunday, and did not reply at all Monday.

Australia has already come under widespread rebuke for its treatment of asylum seekers, which it presently shunts off to detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said the center should be shut down.

Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the UNHCR’s regional office in Bangkok, declined to weigh in on Australia’s latest request that Cambodia take in some of its asylum seekers.

“UNHCR was not part of the bilateral discussions last weekend and cannot comment on what was discussed or agreed. We will be seeking more information on it,” she said.

The UNHCR shuttered its offices in Cambodia after handing over all refugee-processing duties to the government in 2011.

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