Abuse, discrimination and extortion await refugees who are sent to Cambodia from Nauru under a $35 million deal signed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng in September to take Australia’s asylum seekers, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In a series of interviews conducted last week, 10 refugees currently living in Cambodia told the advocacy group that they have difficulty obtaining jobs, are denied access to education and receive substandard health care.
“We have been here more than two years and we have no money and not enough to eat,” one refugee, who asked to remain anonymous, is quoted as saying in the HRW report.
“This is a corrupt country. You will not find jobs,” the refugee said as a message to those being processed offshore by Australia. “It’s better to wait in Nauru. It is a very, very bad life here in Cambodia. There is no future. We can survive, but that’s all.”
According to the report released Friday, many of the hardships faced by the asylum seekers are a direct result of the government’s failure to give them residency cards or nationality documents, leaving them unable to conduct basic transactions such as opening a bank account or obtaining a mobile phone SIM card.
“I tried to find jobs as a laborer, in hotels and restaurants, but no one would hire me because I don’t have proper papers,” said another refugee, who also requested anonymity.
In a highly controversial move, the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding in September saying that an unspecified number of refugees who sought asylum in Australia would instead be sent to Cambodia, but only on a voluntary basis.
Despite a claim at the time that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would help implement the deal, which includes an additional $35 million in development aid from Australia over four years, UNHCR has denied any involvement in the deal, instead calling it “deeply concerning.”
HRW says in its report that the 63 refugees already in Cambodia are living in extremely vulnerable situations.
“The Australian government shouldn’t make the refugees in Nauru suffer further by dumping them in a place unable to adequately resettle or reintegrate them,” HRW Australia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“Cambodia should fix its faulty refugee protection and support services frameworks before accepting any refugees from Nauru, and the Australian government should insist on that,” Ms. Pearson adds.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak dismissed HRW’s findings, which he said did not reflect the real situation in the country.
“It is normal for the statement of the Human Rights Watch to say this about Cambodia,” he said.
Mr. Sopheak noted that it wasn’t only refugees who were finding it difficult to gain well-paid employment in the country, adding that many other countries also faced a shortage of attractive job options.
“If [refugees] are going to find jobs, they can find them, but the job that is high wage, that is normal [to not be able to find],” he said.
Asked whether Cambodia had the capacity to deal with more refugees, Mr. Sopheak said the government had given the question much contemplation.
“We [considered] very thoughtfully about that, whether to take the refugees, whether to sign the agreement with Australia,” he said.
“We are going to move forward; that is the decision of the government.”