Government Works on Australia Refugee Plea

Government officials have got to work parsing a controversial request that Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the region with a spotty record handling refugees, take some of Australia’s asylum seekers.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop made the request to Prime Minister Hun Sen during a visit to Cambodia last month and the government said it would “carefully consider” the idea.

On Wednesday, General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the government had formed a committee to study the request further and that the group had already met at least once.

“The government has already set up a committee, headed by [Foreign Affairs Secretary of State] Long Visalo, to study this,” he said.

But Gen. Sopheak said he was not aware of the progress the new committee has made.

Mr. Visalo declined to comment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal assistant, Eang Sophalleth, said after the meeting with Ms. Bishop that Australia had asked Cambodia to take an unspecified “small number” of “legal” asylum seekers.

The Australian government has revealed even less, refusing to confirm or deny that Mr. Bishop even made the request.

A spokesman for the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh did not reply to a request for comment.

News of the proposal has drawn criticism.

Human rights groups say Cambodia is not prepared to handle the asylum seekers, having violated the rights of refugees that have come its way in recent years from China and Vietnam.

The Australian government has also taken heat for the idea at home from opposition lawmakers who accuse it of soft peddling on Cambodia’s alleged human rights and electoral abuses to make the asylum deal happen.

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