The International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Wednesday acknowledged concerns over its plan to help resettle Australia’s refugees currently being held on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru in Cambodia, while Cambodian officials would not say whether the government had agreed to conditions set out by the global migration body.
The IOM, which counts Cambodia, Nauru and Australia among its 157 member states, released a statement Monday saying it was preparing a program of assistance following a request from the three governments late last year.
In a deal that was widely criticized by rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries, Cambodia agreed to take an indeterminate number of refugees off Australia’s hands in exchange for a $35 million aid package.
IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry said during a visit to Phnom Penh on Wednesday that there had been “huge discussions” within the organization as to whether to lend its expertise to the resettlement process, which the U.N.’s refugee agency refused to facilitate.
“It’s been a very, very complex process just to get this far, and we’re aware of the challenges ahead. But we’re doing it because… the core of it is to uphold the dignity of these people who are now refugees,” Mr. Lowry said, adding that the IOM’s decision to help did not legitimize a “very tough policy from the Australian government.”
“We know that this isn’t going to be easy…. There’s going to be questions asked about why we’re doing it, should we be doing it, and what it legitimizes and so on,” he said.
Mr. Lowry said any refugees who choose to come to Cambodia—none have so far volunteered—would find it “tough” but emphasized that the government had agreed to a number of conditions. Under those conditions, refugees would be allowed to reunite with their families, have the right to live and work anywhere in Cambodia and be provided with documents to access health and education services, while refugees already in the country would receive the same opportunities.
“[W]e have to get conditions in place, working with the Cambodian government, so that people can access all the services,” he said. “That needs to be in place before anyone leaves Nauru.”
The Australian government, Mr. Lowry said, would pay the “significant” cost of what was expected to be a program spanning several years. Both governments are yet to sign formal agreements to work with IOM, but the spokesman said “the gears are clicking into motion now.”
Contacted by telephone Wednesday and asked if the refugees would be allowed to live in Phnom Penh, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said: “I think that you can listen to the press conference before, His Excellency Long Visalo already talked about the plan, what we are going to do with the refugees. So we don’t have any refugees agree to come to Cambodia [yet], so I think that your question [is for] after they come.”
At a press conference in September, Mr. Visalo, a secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry who led Cambodia in the negotiations with Australia, said that the new refugees would not be allowed to reside in the capital. Contacted Wednesday evening, he said that a reporter “had no right to talk to” him and refused to comment further.
Mr. Sopheak said that on the issue of providing documentation to new refugees and those already in the country, Cambodia would abide by international conventions it had signed up to, but suggested that refugees’ families would not be able to join them here.
“Refugees, how can the refugees bring their family,” he said, recounting the experience of Cambodian refugees who were resettled in the U.S. and other countries in the 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. “How can these Cambodians bring their family? There are 50,000 Cambodians living in America, so I think that it’s impossible, not only for Cambodian people, but also for Cambodian-American people.”
Mr. Sopheak said there was “cooperation” between the government and the IOM but that no agreement had been signed, referring questions about the arrangement to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. That ministry’s spokesman, Koy Kuong, referred questions back to the Interior Ministry.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)