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Asylum Seekers Land in Cambodia under Secret Deal

A van drives four refugees from Australia out of Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A van drives four refugees from Australia out of Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Four asylum seekers arrived in Cambodia on Wednesday. They are the first asylum seekers from an Australian-operated camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. The island nation has been holding them for the Australian government. The refugees were denied permission to settle in Australia. Under a secretive deal, Australia agreed to pay Cambodia $32 million for accepting the refugees.

The details of the deal were kept in secret. Even the arrival of the four asylum seekers in Phnom Penh was kept out of sight of reporters. The four individuals left the city’s airport in a vehicle whose windows were covered up.

The refugees are an Iranian man and his wife, a second man, also from Iran, and an ethnic Rohingya man from Myanmar. They were taken to a house in Phnom Penh, where they will live for the next year.

Under the deal, Australia will pay all resettlement costs for a year. Those refugees who accept will receive thousands of dollars in payments, language and skills training, and health care.

The deal has been strongly criticized, both in Australia and overseas.

Phil Robertson is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. He says Cambodia is a poor choice for refugee resettlement because of its recent treatment of refugees from Vietnam and China.

“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society. These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum-seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”

He warns that the deal between Australia and Cambodia will likely harm refugee rights across Southeast Asia.

An Australian Immigration Department press officer who travelled to Cambodia with the four individuals refused to speak to reporters in Phnom Penh.

The Australian government is paying the International Organization for Migration, the IOM, to look after the refugees. Given the sensitive issue, is the IOM concerned about its image? Joe Lowry works for the group.

“We’re involved in this because we genuinely believe – and there was a long debate in IOM, we sent experts here to look at the various factors at play – and we genuinely believe that this is the best option for these people at the moment. They’re not going to get to Australia, so the only choice they have is stay on Nauru or come to Cambodia.”

Joe Lowry says all four refugees volunteered to leave Nauru for Cambodia. He says they requested not to speak with reporters for fear that identifying them might put their families at risk.

For its part, Australia hopes their experience will persuade some of the hundreds still on Nauru to consider giving up on their dream of living in Australia.

In a video in April, Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told the detainees their choices were limited to remaining on Nauru for another 10 years or moving to Cambodia.

“I want to make it very clear to all refugees and transferees in Nauru that you will not under any circumstances be settling in Australia. This is not an option that the Australian government will ever present to you. Cambodia provides you with a chance to start afresh, a chance to begin a new life. This is your only long-term settlement option.”

More than 600 refugees and asylum-seekers are thought to be living on Nauru. Hundreds more are in detention on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island under an agreement with Australia. Most are believed to be from South Asia or the Middle East.

The proposed resettlement deal was the subject of months of secret negotiations. It has received criticism from rights organizations, religious groups and opposition politicians in both countries.

Rights groups say Mr. Dutton’s description of Cambodia as a land of safety, security and opportunity is untrue. His comments conflict with the Australian government’s own advice to Australians thinking of visiting the country.

Some Cambodians also are unhappy. Their homeland has high levels of corruption, poor education and health care systems, and no social programs to help the very poor. The Cambodians cannot understand why foreign nationals will get money and help that are unavailable to them and other citizens.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Robert Carmichael reported on this story from Phnom Penh. George Grow adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

resettlementadj. helping refugees get settled in a place other than their home; n. – the process of setting up a new home

capabilityn. the ability to do something

integratev. to combine two or more things to form something; to make a part of something larger

guinea pig(s) – n. a small animal that is used for testing

factor n., something that helps influence or produce a result

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