UN Critical of Pending Asylum Seeker Deal

Officials with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Tuesday spoke out for the first time against Australia’s plans to send some of the asylum seekers trying to reach its shores to Cambodia, saying the pending deal was not a “real solution.”

Cambodian officials first broke news of the plan in February during a visit to Phnom Penh by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who broached the idea in a private meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Cambodia at the time said it would “carefully consider” the request, but has said little else about it since.

Amid strong objections to the plan from rights groups and opposition lawmakers in both Cambodia and Australia, the UNHCR —while critical of Australia’s handling of asylum seekers at offshore detention centers—had stayed silent about Cambodia’s proposed role.

According to Australian media, however, UNHCR broke its silence on Tuesday at a regional forum on refugees in Jakarta, saying Cambodia was not a suitable destination for resettling desperate refugees.

“From our point of view, resettlement is looking for durable solutions for refugees…who have had to flee their homes,” UNHCR senior regional protection advisor Tom Vargas told reporters in reference to Cambodia.

“A real solution is not to send them to a country that is still recovering from a horrible civil war that killed millions of its people,” he said. “It’s not in the spirit of resettlement as far as I can tell.”

His concerns echoed those of some rights groups who criticized Australia for trying to hand its legal responsibility for the asylum seekers over to one of the poorest countries in the region. They have also accused Australia of ignoring Mr. Hun Sen’s spotty human rights record to try and make the asylum deal happen.

“Unilateral solutions and even bilateral solutions are not going to solve the problem,” Mr. Vargas was quoted as saying in Jakarta by the Australian Associated Press. “They may solve them in the short term for some countries, but it’s not going to solve the situation in full.”

According to the media reports, Australia also had yet to respond to the UNHCR’s request for information about its plans for Cambodia.

A spokesman for Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who paid a quick visit to Cambodia earlier this month to follow up on Ms. Bishop’s trip, did not reply to a request for comment.

In Cambodia, Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Long Visalo, who is heading an ad hoc government committee to assess Australia’s asylum-seeker request, declined to speak with a reporter.

Officials at the Interior Ministry could not be reached.

(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)


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