Rohingya Refugee Picks Burma Over Cambodia

A Rohingya refugee wants to go back to Burma—where his people are denied citizenship and subject to deadly pogroms by the Buddhist majority—rather than stay in Cambodia any longer, according to the Ministry of Interior.

The man, whose identity has been kept secret, landed in Phnom Penh on June 4 along with three Iranians—the first group to move here from Australia’s refugee camps on the South Pacific island of Nauru under a controversial resettlement deal that Canberra convinced Cambodia to sign with the nudge of a generous aid package. The four have since been kept away from the media behind the gates of their paid-for villa outside the city center and accompanied by chaperones during excursions outside.

Two boys walk past the Phnom Penh villa serving as the temporary housing for the first four refugees from Nauru last week. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)
Two boys walk past the Phnom Penh villa serving as the temporary housing for the first four refugees from Nauru last week. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

On Sunday, Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said the Rohingya man had grown overcome with “homesickness.”

“The Rohingya man, one of the four, has asked the Cambodian government [to allow him] to go back to his home country,” he said. “He misses his homeland, so he asked to go back to Burma.”

Neither Cambodia, Australia nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is facilitating the resettlements, has offered any insight into the identities of the four who fled their home countries.

Gen. Sopheak said the Rohingya man, who was caught at sea while trying to reach Australia and denied entry, might have agreed to come to Cambodia thinking the country was similar to Burma and had been disappointed to find that it wasn’t. He said the Rohingya man’s distinction within the group of four may also have influenced his decision.

“He is the only one who wants to go back,” he said. “He wants to go back home because he is alone. He has no mother or father or brother or sister, but the Iranians are three.”

The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh did not reply to a request for comment. A spokesman for the IOM said he could not comment due to the organization’s confidentiality policies and a request for privacy from the refugees.

Since the refugees arrived, the Interior Ministry and IOM have said that the four were taking well to Cambodia, liked the local food and found the people friendly. They said efforts to teach them Khmer and find them jobs were coming along.

But a local businesswoman and a refugee advocate who know or work with other Rohingya refugees in Phnom Penh have said that they have neither seen nor heard of efforts to put the Rohingya man from Nauru in touch with the others.

Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh, said Sunday that her group had reached out to the authorities handling the resettlement deal—offering a translator and help connecting the new arrivals to refugees already settled in Cambodia—but was rebuffed.

“I am pretty stunned,” she said of the man’s request to return to Burma. “One Rohingya here was very willing to befriend the new arrivals.”

But when the authorities were approached, she said, “the standard answer is that their privacy needs to be protected, and we have had no access.”

Ian Rintoul of the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition criticized the fact that the new refugees were not allowed to interact with the community.

“It is disappointing and sad, but not surprising, that the Rohingya man wants to return home. There is no doubt that the way the refugees who did transfer from Nauru have been treated has discouraged this man. They have been cut off from any community and support networks,” Mr. Rintoul said.

Though Australia says it hopes that many more of the hundreds of refugees still on Nauru eventually head to Cambodia, there has been little interest. Some critics say the deal was never meant to be a viable solution to the situation on Nauru, but a way to dissuade other asylum seekers from setting out for Australia in the first place.

Cambodia has openly said it wants to see as few of the Nauru refugees resettle here as possible. It has done remarkably little to earn the AU$40 million (about $27.6 million) signing bonus Australia announced when the two countries sealed the deal with a champagne toast in Phnom Penh a year ago. Though Australia has agreed to cover most of the costs of hosting refugees from Nauru for a year after they move out of the Phnom Penh villa, any expenses after that will fall on Cambodia unless Australia agrees to extend benefits on a case-by-case basis.

“The refugee deal with Cambodia has never been serious,” Mr. Rintoul said. “It has always been a bit of expensive political theatrics to cover up the fact that the Australian government has no resettlement solution for the refugees that Australia has sent to Nauru. Australia has traduced a poor country into a program that violates the rights of refugees.”

Most of the other Rohingya refugees in Cambodia are also trying to leave, but are looking for third countries to settle in, such as Canada. That the refugee from Nauru is willing to go back to Burma, Mr. Rintoul said, would only make an already unpopular resettlement deal more so.

“That this man wants to return home will only convince the other refugees on Nauru that they have been right to refuse to go to Cambodia,” he said. “If anyone was thinking of transferring to Cambodia, they will be thinking twice and three times.”

Gen. Sopheak of the Interior Ministry said he did not know when the Rohingya man would be sent back to Burma.

“Let the authorities deal with the request,” he said. “First he volunteered to come to Cambodia. Now he does not want to stay, and we cannot force him to.”

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