After months of fraught negotiations and secretive planning with Cambodia, Australia on Thursday flew the first four refugees into Phnom Penh under a highly controversial deal that could bring dozens—or hundreds—more in their wake.
Three Iranians and a Rohingya man from Burma landed at Phnom Penh International Airport on the morning’s sole Malaysia Airlines flight and were escorted into a waiting van with drawn curtains that whisked them to their new home in the city’s southern Chbar Ampov district.
The spacious, gated villa was arranged for them by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is helping with the resettlements.
“The group [was] transferred to temporary accommodation in Phnom Penh, where IOM will begin to provide essential support, including language training, cultural and social orientation, education services, health services and employment services,” the organization said in a statement.
Only weeks ago, the four were among hundreds of refugees Australia is holding in camps on the South Pacific island of Nauru, having caught them trying to reach its shores.
Under a tough new immigration policy, Australia is refusing to take in the refugees and in September convinced Cambodia to resettle an unspecified number of them instead—in return for an aid package worth AU$40-million (US$31.2-million).
But convincing the refugees on Nauru to come to Cambodia has been tough, even after the Australian government distributed a “fact” sheet to refugees that was full of outright lies about the state of crime, healthcare and politics in the country.
Now that the four have arrived, Australia hopes their example will convince more to follow them.
From the start, the plan has drawn strident rebuke from opposition lawmakers and rights advocates in both countries who accuse Australia of shirking its international obligations by shunting the refugees off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
They are worried, too, that Cambodia will not be able to take care of the refugees from Nauru after a year, when Australia stops covering their basic living expenses.
Cambodia has a shoddy record to date. It is insisting on finding a third country for 13 Montagnard refugees from Vietnam it took in recently, and deported dozens more who followed without letting them apply for asylum. It did the same to 20 Uighurs in 2009, forcibly deporting them back to China.
“Australia is throwing tens of millions of dollars at Cambodia to take these refugees, despite Cambodia’s recent record of ejecting asylum seekers from Vietnam and its threat to throw out even more if some other country doesn’t agree to resettle them,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said in a statement Thursday.
“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society,” he said. “These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores…the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”
But Australia has pulled out all the stops to try to make a good impression with the four refugees who arrived Thursday.
According to refugee advocacy groups, the four were promised thousand of dollars each for agreeing to move to Cambodia. Australia has also promised to set them up with bank accounts, provide them with case managers, get them job training and help them find stable employment.
“They will be encouraged and supported to integrate into the Cambodian community and become self-reliant as quickly as possible,” the IOM said.
But for the time being, the IOM has made every effort to keep them hidden, and away from the press—at the refugees’ own request, according to the IOM.
The deal Australia struck with Cambodia in September promises to let them apply for Cambodian citizenship if they wish. The vast majority of refugees who do resettle in Cambodia, however, either find a third country or simply run away, said Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the country.
“It will be interesting to see how many of these refugees [from Nauru] plan to stay; I’ll be very curious to see that,” she said.
Of the roughly 60 refugees already in Cambodia, none is from Iran. The dozen or so Rohingya from Burma are looking for a third country.