Interior Minister Sar Kheng left for Australia on Tuesday amid ongoing efforts by the two countries to convince refugees Australia is currently holding on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru to resettle in Cambodia.
Cambodia signed off on a controversial deal with Australia in September to take in an unspecified number of the refugees on a strictly voluntary basis in return for an additional $35 million in aid over the next four years. They failed to convince any of the 400-odd refugees currently on Nauru to take up the offer during a joint visit to the island in January.
A statement from the Interior Ministry says Mr. Kheng will meet with Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, sign a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on fighting cross-border crime and illegal immigration, and meet with the Cambodian community in Sydney before returning on Friday.
At the Phnom Penh International Airport before boarding his flight, Mr. Kheng told reporters that progress implementing the refugee deal between the two countries had been slow. He said the deal “might be raised” during his trip but was not on the agenda.
“Concerning the refugees, I think my schedule does not include this issue, because the two countries are working on it responsibly,” he said. “Up to now, we can say that we have not yet taken a big step forward.”
During Mr. Dutton’s recent visit to Cambodia, Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said the partners were aiming to convince up to five families on Nauru to resettle here soon as an initial test run.
On Tuesday, however, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Cambodia had not sent officials to Nauru since the failed visit in January, that none was on the island currently and that no more trips were currently scheduled.
Rights groups and opposition lawmakers in Cambodia and Australia have criticized Australia over the deal for seeking to offload its obligations under international law by sending the refugees to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)