The first four refugees to volunteer for a resettlement deal between Cambodia and Australia will arrive in Phnom Penh on Thursday, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said Wednesday, more than a year after Canberra first mooted the controversial plan.
General Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that the four—three Iranians, including a couple, and a Rohingya man from Burma—would arrive on a Malaysia Airlines flight “tomorrow morning.”
Dozens of journalists gathered at Phnom Penh International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, suspecting that the government might try to sneak the refugees into the country sooner, in the hopes of keeping them out of the media spotlight, but the group did not arrive.
Canberra has maintained a near-complete media blackout on the deal since Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, during a visit to Phnom Penh in February 2014, asked Cambodia to consider resettling some of the hundreds of refugees her country has been holding on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru.
After months of secret negotiations, Cambodia in September finally agreed to take in an unspecified number of refugees in return for an extra $31 million in aid from Australia.
Australia also agreed to cover the costs of hosting any refugee who agrees to resettle in Cambodia for at least a year.
Criticism of the deal was swift and relentless from opposition lawmakers and rights groups in both countries. They accused Australia —which refuses to take in the refugees itself under a tough immigration policy—for shunting them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
Despite the widespread rebuke, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) eventually agreed to assist the resettlements.
As late as Wednesday afternoon, IOM spokesman Joe Lowry said the organization had yet to be officially told when the four refugees would arrive in Phnom Penh. But he said the IOM was ready to welcome them at any time.
The IOM says it has already arranged temporary accommodation for the refugees and will provide them with meals and initial services as soon as they arrive, including cultural orientation and language instruction.
Mr. Lowry said the IOM did not want the location of the house revealed, however, for the sake of the refugees’ security, and that they had made it clear that they do not want to speak with the media.
“Refugees are fleeing persecution from their home countries, and it is imperative that their personal details not be shared publicly as it could be detrimental to their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of their family members still at home,” he said.