Gov’t Officials Visit Nauru Refugee Site

The U.N. and an Australian refugee rights group say a delegation of Cambodian officials arrived Monday in the South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where Australia is holding hundreds of asylum seekers and hopes to convince at least some of them to volunteer to be resettled in Cambodia.

In September, Cambodia signed off on a controversial deal with Australia to take an unspecified number of refugees in return for an additional $35 million in aid over the next four years. This is the first trip Cambodian officials have made to the island in preparation for receiving what could be the initial group of volunteers.

“Cambodian officials [have] now arrived on Nauru,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Sydney-based advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition. “They arrived yesterday.”

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed that its representatives had also arrived in Nauru with Cambodian and Australian officials.

“We are there as an observer of the meetings between the Cambodian, Australian and Nauru governments,” Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the IOM, said via telephone from Bangkok.

Mr. Lowry said Leul Mekonnen, who heads the IOM’s Cambodia office, was leading the organization’s delegation.

The IOM has been considering since October whether to play a part in the resettlement program, which was negotiated by Cambodia and Australia in secret and without the participation of aid agencies or non-government groups.

Cambodian and Australian officials contacted Tuesday would neither confirm nor deny the visit.

Cambodian immigration czar Sok Phal declined to comment and referred questions to Interior Ministry Undersecretary of State Ouk Kimlek, who referred questions back to General Phal. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he knew nothing about a trip to Nauru.

A spokesman for Australia’s Immigration Department declined to comment. The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to a request for comment.

Australia’s The Age newspaper reported Tuesday that Australian officials joining the visit include Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who heads the Australian government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, and Mark Cormack, Australia’s deputy secretary of immigration.

The Age also reported—without citing any sources—that “a number” of Rohingya refugees were expected to take up the offer of resettling in Cambodia.

The Rohingya have been violently oppressed in Burma, whose government refuses to legally recognize them as an ethnic group even though many have lived in the country for generations.

Though Cambodia insists that it will only resettle those refugees who volunteer, rights groups and opposition lawmakers have lambasted Australia for shirking its own responsibilities for the asylum seekers in Nauru and trying to shunt them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.

peter@cambodiadaily.com, reaksmey@cambodiadaily.com

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