The International Organization for Migration on Wednesday said it was expecting the first refugees from Nauru to arrive in Phnom Penh within days as part of a controversial resettlement deal Australia and Cambodia signed in September.
“I can confirm that we will send an official to Nauru in the coming days with the expectation of possible movements but don’t have any further information for the moment,” said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the organization, which has agreed to help facilitate the deal.
News of the first arrivals follows a leaked letter the refugees on Nauru are being handed that makes false claims about the state of Cambodia’s democracy, health care system and respect for free speech—and offering to fly them here as soon as Monday.
Under the agreement signed in September, Cambodia has agreed to take in an unlimited number of the hundreds of refugees that Australia is currently holding on Nauru—a tiny island nation in the South Pacific—in return for an additional $35 million in aid over the next four years. Rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both countries have lambasted the deal, accusing Australia of shirking its international obligations for the refugees by shunting them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.
Neither the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh nor Australia’s Immigration Department responded to requests for comment Wednesday, while Cambodian officials could not be reached.
Since Australian and Cambodian officials toasted the deal with champagne last year, two separate delegations from Cambodia that visited Nauru failed to convince a single refugee to take up the offer. Cambodia said the visiting officials gave the refugees an honest take on what they could expect life to be like in their country.
A leaked letter, however, shows that the refugees are being lied to.
Ian Rintoul, a member of the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition who is in touch with refugees on Nauru, said in an email Wednesday that the letter was being handed out by Australian immigration officers on the island.
The five-page letter, titled “Settlement in Cambodia” and dated April 10, offers a primer on how to apply and what help refugees can expect upon landing in Phnom Penh.
“Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future,” it says. “Once you arrive in Cambodia, you will receive a range of services that will help you to build a life for yourself and your family.”
Australia has agreed to cover most of the refugees’ expenses for a year, and to extend some benefits for up to four years, including private schools for refugees’ children and health insurance.
The letter also makes false claims about what Cambodia is like.
Cambodians, it says, “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”
A raft of international reports, studies and rankings say otherwise, however.
Last year, researchers at Harvard University and the University of Sydney ranked Cambodia’s 2013 national election the fifth most “flawed or failed” out of the 73 national polls held around the world between July 2012 and December 2013. It performed better than only Belarus, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, and Equatorial Guinea.
Local NGOs and election observers also said Cambodia’s 2013 election was its worst in 20 years. Transparency International Cambodia said the official results, which narrowly returned the CPP to power for a fourth consecutive time, were unreliable. “Due to problematic pre-election conditions and voting process irregularities experienced,” the groups said, it “cannot express with confidence that the outcome of the election reflects the will of the Cambodian people.”
In 2013, the U.S.-based Freedom House ranked Cambodia “not free” for the 40th year running, placing it among the countries “where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”
Just last month, the World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 98th out of 102 countries—representing roughly 90 percent of the global population—in its latest index of government openness, based on surveys with 1,000 people in each state. That places Cambodia’s government among the least open in the world. Only half of those surveyed in Cambodia agreed that NGOs and political parties could freely express opinions against the government. Only a quarter of respondents said the media could do the same.
Cambodia also consistently ranks near the bottom of global measures of corruption and press freedom.
On the subject of safety, the letter being passed out to the refugees on Nauru tells them they have nothing to worry about.
“Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order,” it says. “It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs.”
In one of the most corrupt countries in the world, Cambodians consider the police among the most corrupt of all. The government regularly deploys police and soldiers to break up peaceful protests by force. Few in Cambodia expect the courts to deliver justice, either. The U.N.’s last human rights envoy to Cambodia said the judiciary was riddled with corruption.
Violent crime is also common. In a report released earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security released a report for embassy staff that gave Cambodia a “critical” rating for crime.
“Violent crime, especially armed robberies, continued to occur,” it said of the past year. “While the chances of being a victim increase dramatically at night, daytime robberies are also very common. The frequency of armed robberies involving weapons continues at high levels.
The report said “random gunfire incidents” and road-rage shoot-outs occurred frequently, and that youth gangs in Phnom Penh “operate unimpeded.”
The letter to the Nauru refugees says they would also be moving to a country with quality clinics and hospitals.
“Cambodia has a high standard of health care, with multiple hospitals and general practitioners,” it says.
The Australian government tells its own people something very different.
On the website of the Australian Foreign Affairs Department, the page on Cambodia urges visitors to the country to take out insurance that will cover them for medical evacuation.
“Health and medical services in Cambodia are generally of a very poor quality and very limited in the services they can provide,” the department says. “Outside Phnom Penh, there are almost no medical facilities equipped to deal with medical emergencies…. Take care if purchasing medication in Cambodia. Local pharmacies may sell counterfeit medication which is often indistinguishable from authentic medication.”
Despite the hard sell on Cambodia, refugees on Nauru have staged several protests against Australia’s deal with Cambodia and its staunch refusal to let them settle in Australia.
The letter to the refugees underlines the point and lays out only three options: Come to Cambodia, stay longer in Nauru or go home.
“The opportunity to settle in Cambodia is now available to you,” the letter says, with the first flight out of Nauru for Cambodia departing “as soon as 20 April.”
Citing unnamed sources, an article in The Guardian newspaper Wednesday said Australia had chartered a plane for the maiden voyage and that at least one family was on the flight manifest. The report could not be confirmed.