Rohingya Refugee Likely Back In Burma

A Rohingya refugee who landed in Phnom Penh in June as part of a controversial resettlement deal with Australia is likely back in Burma after requesting to return home, according to the Interior Ministry.

Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that the Rohingya man—who, according to the government, asked to return to his home country because he was homesick—was scheduled to fly back on Sunday.

“He [was supposed to] go to Burma on the 11th of October,” he said Tuesday. “But since it was a holiday, I don’t know if it happened or not.”

General Sopheak referred further questions to the Burmese Embassy in Phnom Penh. Moe Htet Kyaw, a second secretary at the embassy who confirmed the refugee’s request to return home last month, could not be reached.

Tan Sovichea, head of the refugee office at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said on Monday that the man had all the travel documents he needed to make the trip but did not know whether he had actually left.

“He can go on his own; we aren’t sending him,” he said. “He could have left the country already, I’m not sure.”

The man was among four refugees that arrived in Cambodia from Nauru as part of a deal Cambodia struck with Australia last year to take in an unspecified number of the hundreds of refugees that Australia is holding on the South Pacific island in exchange for an additional AU$40 million (about $29 million) in aid.

Rights groups have said that the Rohingya man’s request to return to Burma, where the Muslim minority group has been subjected to severe persecution by the government and Buddhist nationalists, was proof of the deal’s failure to offer the refugees on Nauru a viable resettlement option.

Australia, which detained the migrants at sea as they tried to reach its shores, is refusing to take them in.

Since arriving on June 4, the group of four has been sequestered in a gated villa in Phnom Penh by Australia, which has agreed to cover all resettlement costs for at least a year, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has agreed to help them adjust to life in a new country.

The agreement Cambodia and Australia signed stated that any refugees who agreed to resettle here would be provided temporary housing in Phnom Penh until they attained “basic” Khmer language skills, and then get help finding new accommodations. The Cambodian government and IOM, however, later gave conflicting reports on whether they would be allowed to stay in the capital.

On Tuesday, IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry said the departure from the villa of the other three refugees in the group—all from Iran, including a married couple—was “imminent,” but declined to be more specific.

The Interior Ministry’s Gen. Sopheak said he expected the refugees to move out “soon,” but that he did not know when, exactly, or to where.

On October 1, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said Cambodia had agreed to take in a second group of refugees on Nauru—two more Rohingya men from Burma—following a recent trip to the island by a Cambodian delegation.

On Tuesday, Gen. Sopheak said he still did not know when they would arrive.

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