Deal for Australia’s Asylum Seekers May Be Signed Soon

An ad hoc committee charged with studying a request from Australia that Cambodia take some of the asylum seekers trying to reach its shores has finished its work and the two countries could have a memorandum of understanding on the deal signed within weeks, according to Australian media reports.

Ouch Borith, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ABC Radio Australia on Monday morning that a deal was imminent that could see Cambodia take in hundreds of the refugees.

Asked whether a memorandum could be signed in a matter of weeks, Mr. Borith replied, “I hope so.”

Mr. Borith declined to divulge any details about the plan, however, including the number of asylum seekers Cambodia would take in or how much money Australia would pay Cambodia in return.

Contacted Monday in Beijing, where he was on a state visit with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Mr. Borith declined to speak with a reporter.

Long Visalo, another secretary of state at the ministry, who headed the committee formed to study Australia’s request, also declined to comment.

Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he knew nothing about the talks. He referred a reporter to Mr. Borith’s interview with the ABC but would not confirm or deny any of his comments.

Cambodian officials first broke news of the plan in February during a visit to Phnom Penh by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who broached the idea in a private meeting with Mr. Hun Sen.

At the time, Cambodia said it would “carefully consider” the idea. By late last month, Mr. Borith said the government had “agreed in principle.”

Neither the Cambodian nor the Australian government has offered any details about the plan, however. Unattributed news reports claim that the deal could see Cambodia take in 100 of the refugees trying to reach Australia in return for $40 million.

Rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries have been quick to criticize the plan. They argue that Australia would be shirking its treaty obligations to help the asylum seekers itself and that Cambodia, with its spotty human rights record and one of the poorest countries in the region, was ill equipped to take them.

Officials with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have criticized the plan as well, saying it was not a “real solution” to send people fleeing persecution to another country still recovering from years of devastating civil war.

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