Among the hundreds of refugees Australia is holding on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru, the Cambodian Interior Ministry said Wednesday that it has found its first volunteer to attempt to make a new life in Cambodia.
Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said a Cambodian delegation currently visiting the refugee camps on Nauru has confirmed that a Rohingya man who had fled Burma in the hope of reaching Australia had volunteered to resettle in Cambodia, but that he did not know when the man would arrive.
“We have received only one volunteer…and our team is now working with our Australian counterparts,” he said.
Australia was hoping to send a vanguard of volunteers to Cambodia on Monday, but delayed the maiden flight due to “logistical issues in relation to officials from Cambodia being involved in the process.” At the time, Cambodia said it was not aware of any volunteers.
If and when the Rohingya man does arrive, he will be the first person being held on Nauru to resettle in Cambodia under a controversial deal Cambodia signed with Australia last year to take in an unlimited number of the refugees in exchange for a $31-million aid package.
Australia is refusing to take in the refugees itself and has been rebuked by rights groups and opposition lawmakers both at home and in Cambodia, as well as the U.N., for seeking to hand them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
The Refugee Action Coalition, a Sydney-based group that advocates for refugees’ rights, said last week that it knew of up to five asylum seekers on Nauru who had agreed to move to Cambodia but had not yet had their refugee claims approved. Under its deal with Australia, Cambodia agreed to take in only official refugees, and only if they volunteered. The group is concerned that Australia is pressuring the asylum seekers into signing up and fast-tracking them through the claims process.
General Sopheak said the Rohingya man was a certified refugee.
“They have the refugee status already…and he volunteered to come, through the verification of our Cambodian team,” he said.
The general said he did not know when the man would arrive in Cambodia but said he would not be coming with the delegation, which left for Nauru on Sunday and is expected back this week or next.
“He will stay there…until he gets the green light,” he said.
Gen. Sopheak said the Interior Ministry would continue working from Phnom Penh to vet the volunteer, but would not say how long the process might take.
Under its deal with Australia, Cambodia is to review the “relevant documents” of all volunteers, including those covering unspecified personal information and medical history.
“We do not know his background yet,” said Kerm Sarin, who heads the refugee office at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department. “Once we have checked his background and his health…and once we see that he has not committed any crimes and does not use drugs…then we will inform him that he can come to live in our country.”
A spokeswoman for Australia’s Immigration Department said she had no update on the resettlement efforts since last week, when she said the department was in talks with refugees who had expressed interest in moving to Cambodia.
Confirmation of the first volunteer comes amid a tough push from Australia for the refugees on Nauru to take up the offer.
On Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper posted to its website a video of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that was to be shown to the refugees on Nauru that afternoon.
“You will not under any circumstances be settling in Australia,” Mr. Dutton said in the video. “Australia will never be a settlement destination for you or your family.”
“While it’s not Australia,” he added, “Cambodia offers you safety, security and opportunity.”
The minister calls Cambodia “a fast-paced and vibrant country with a stable economy and varied employment opportunities,” and urges the refugees to ignore “agitators” advising them not to take the offer.
The video follows a five-page letter his department began handing out to the refugees earlier this month telling them about the assistance they could expect as soon as they land in Phnom Penh.
The offer includes cash in hand and all living expenses paid for a year, as well as with some benefits—including health insurance —for longer, and help finding work or starting a business.
But the letter also makes a number of false claims about life in Cambodia.
It says Cambodians have “a high standard of health care,” “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society,” and face no problems with violent crime.
The Australian government’s own travel advice for visitors to Cambodia contradicts the letter’s claims on all three points.
The department has refused to account for the letter’s lies.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)