Three more refugees being held by Australia on Nauru have now agreed to take Cambodia up on its offer to resettle them, with a rights group saying the asylum seekers had their refugee claims approved only in the past week to make the move possible.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, said Monday that the three new refugees, all Iranians, joined a Rohingya man from Burma who volunteered last week.
“Now we have four,” he said, “one from [Burma] and three from Iran.”
General Sopheak said a Cambodian delegation that left for the South Pacific island nation just over a week ago to look for volunteers among the hundreds of refugees there was on its way back, and that the four volunteers could be here in “weeks.”
The pending arrivals are part of a controversial deal Cambodia signed with Australia last year, agreeing to resettle an unlimited number of the refugees Australia is holding on Nauru and is refusing to take in itself. The deal includes an extra $31 million in aid for Cambodia, part of which Australia has promised to spend on improving the communities where the refugees end up settling in Cambodia.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, which has maintained contact with people on Nauru, said three of the four volunteers were being held apart from the hundreds of other refugees on the island.
“[I] can confirm there is [an] Iranian husband and wife plus another Iranian who are in OPC 1,” he said, referring to Offshore Processing Center 1.
According to an Australian government website about the camps on Nauru, OPC 1 is reserved for transferees and staff, not refugees.
Mr. Rintoul said the three were asylum seekers who had their refugee claims approved only recently —the couple as late as Saturday.
Under the terms of its deal with Australia, Cambodia agreed to take only volunteers whose refugee claims have been approved.
But Australia has struggled to convince any of the refugees to volunteer—Cambodia’s first two delegations to Nauru returned empty-handed—and has reportedly started approaching asylum seekers, too.
According to Mr. Rintoul, the single Iranian man said he was promised that his refugee application would be approved if he agreed to move to Cambodia.
“[I] can’t confirm for the couple yet, but definitely for the single Iranian man,” he said.
Mr. Rintoul said Australia has also been enticing the asylum seekers with cash payments of up to $11,700 each.
Australia’s Immigration Department has declined to answer questions about the cash or about approaching asylum seekers to volunteer for the program.
Mr. Sopheak said he did not know when any of the four volunteers had their refugee claims approved or whether or not Australia had made a deal with them.
Australia had hoped to send the first planeload of refugees out of Nauru a week ago Monday, but postponed the flight because of “logistical issues” with Cambodia, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said last week.
Cambodia’s Interior Ministry has said it wants to thoroughly vet the volunteers and their backgrounds before it lets them land.
Australia has promised to pay all living expenses for refugees who move from Nauru to Cambodia for at least a year and offered additional incentives for those who sign up early, including cash in hand and a bank account to get them started. It has said that a similar deal might not be available for those who wait.
But Australia has also been giving those on Nauru misleading information about life in Cambodia, which remains one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
Australia is telling them that Cambodians have “high standards of healthcare” and “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society,” and that the country “does not have problems with violent crime.”
The Australian government’s own travel advice on Cambodia says the opposite.