Two more refugees being held by Australia in an offshore detention facility have volunteered to relocate to Cambodia, an immigration official said on Wednesday, a sign that the teetering resettlement deal between the two countries has yet to run its course.
Kerm Sarin, administration chief at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said the two new volunteers from the refugee camp on the South Pacific island of Nauru had yet to submit formal applications. The news follows reports that two refugees on Nauru self-immolated over the past week.
If approved, the pair will join the two others who have left Nauru for Phnom Penh—and stayed—since Cambodia accepted a $30 million aid package from Australia in September 2014 in exchange for taking in an unspecified number of the hundreds of refugees on the tiny island.
“Australia has informed us that two more people have volunteered to come to Cambodia,” Mr. Sarin said on Wednesday.
“This is only unofficial information from Australia, and we have not yet received any official letter,” he said. “We will review the documents in the resettlement requests of the volunteer refugees and submit them to the minister for a decision.”
Mr. Sarin said he did not know the gender, age or nationality of the two volunteers, or whether they were related.
A spokeswoman for the office of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton did not reply to a request for comment.
Only five of the refugees on Nauru have moved to Phnom Penh since Cambodia and Australia clinched the resettlement deal with a champagne toast at the Interior Ministry more than a year and a half ago. But three of them, a man from Burma and a married couple from Iran, have since opted to return home rather than stay in Cambodia.
Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, said some of the refugees on Nauru might still see Cambodia as a stepping stone to someplace better, even if Australia had made it clear that its shores were firmly out of reach.
He said the self-immolation of a refugee on Nauru on Monday, the second in a week, might also compel some to consider Cambodia, but remained doubtful that the transfers would ever amount to more than a trickle.
“The sheer brutality and horror of what has happened recently on Nauru may drive small numbers to consider Cambodia to be an alternative,” he said. “We also have the recent efforts of the Australian government to reiterate that there is no alternative but Cambodia. What is striking is that so few people are willing to consider Cambodia [in] spite of the deteriorating circumstances on Nauru.”
“I doubt there will ever be more than a few individuals who may be driven to consider going to Cambodia,” he added. “It is perfectly clear that the Cambodia solution proposed by the Australian government is an expensive farce.”
Despite the slight interest in Cambodia, Mr. Dutton has continued to defend the deal as an effective deterrent against attempts by would-be asylum seekers to reach Australia.