Mounting Criticism as Refugee Deal Nears

Two more rights networks have added their voice to the mounting criticism against Aus­tra­lia’s pending plans to send some of the asylum seekers trying to reach its shores to Cambo­dia, even as the deal moves closer to becoming reality.

Rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries, and even the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have already rebuked the idea, which could see Australia send some 1,000 refugees to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.

In a statement Wednesday, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a network of several local NGOs, said the plan would contravene the 1951 Refugee Convention—which both countries have signed—and called on Australia to reconsider the idea.

According to the U.N., the state­ment says, a host country should provide refugees with the same legal and physical protections afforded to nationals.

“Anyone aware of the situation in Cambodia knows that the ‘rights enjoyed by nationals’ in Cambodia are far from enviable,” CHRAC says, with security forces and government agencies “known to commit abuses such as killings, torture and arbitrary detention without being held accountable.”

“Those living on the margins are particularly vulnerable to these abuses,” it adds, highlighting the case of 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers who were deported from Cambodia back to China in 2009 before their claims were properly assessed at the request of Beijing.

The statement says the 68 ref­ugees and asylum seekers currently in Cambodia are being de­nied equal rights already. They have been denied work permits, are unable to open bank accounts or buy property and struggle to access education and health care.

In its own statement on Monday, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a group of 180 civil society groups and individuals from across the region, calls on Austral­ia to outright abandon the deal, which it also says would breach the 1951 Refugee Convention.

According to the U.N., more than 40 percent of Cambodia’s children are malnourished.

“In a country that is struggling to feed its own population, it would be burdensome for Cambodia to provide for those given little choice but to seek resettlement on its shores,” the Rights Network says.

The Cambodian government insists that it would only take ref­ugees Australia is currently holding on Nauru who volunteer to come.

“However,” the Rights Network says, “if the choices given to the refugees are either settlement in Cambodia or temporary settlement in Nauru with no clear prospect of resettlement elsewhere, there are concerns that such a choice may not be truly voluntary.”

Unsubstantiated and unconfirmed news reports claim that Australia has offered Cambodia as much as $40 million to take the refugees. On Tuesday, the Syd­ney Morning Herald reported that Cambodia had recently sent Australia a first draft of the deal.

A spokesperson for Australian Immigration Minister Scott Mor­rison declined to confirm or deny the report and said discussions were ongoing. Officials at Cambo­dia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry could not be reached.

peter@cambodiadaily.com

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