Australia-Cambodia Refugee Deal Neglects Permanent Solution

By Billy Tai

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop first raised the possibility of resettling refugees with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in February 2014. By September 2014, the Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Cambodia was signed. Following several ensuing visits to Australia and Nauru by Cambodian delegations, it seems the first group of refugees who have “voluntarily” chosen to resettle in Cambodia will arrive imminently.

Why would the Australian government choose a poverty-stricken country – still recovering from past atrocities and reliant on international aid – as a partner in fulfilling an election promise to never settle those “illegals” in Australia?

The 2011 High Court of Australia decision on the “Malaysia deal”, struck under the former Labor government, sheds some light. The decision effectively meant that any potential country in which Australia wished to resettle refugees must have ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention).

Yet fewer than half the countries in the Asia Pacific region fit this criterion. In Southeast Asia, the most accessible region for Australia, only East Timor, Cambodia and the Philippines have done so. Australia promised an aid package of AU$40 million over four years in exchange for Cambodia’s promise to resettle an unspecified number of refugees from Nauru, with Australia footing the bill for each resettlement itself.

In the most recent development, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton starred in a video encouraging refugees and detained asylum seekers in Nauru to take up the “resettlement package” and relocate to Cambodia.

The video referenced an earlier letter circulated by immigration staff to detainees on the island, as first reported by the Guardian. In the letter, the Australian government goes to great lengths to deceive the Nauru cohort into accepting the settlement deal. The claims about protection and quality of life in Cambodia contained in the letter contradicts most international assessments, as well as the Australian government’s own travel advice to Australians.

The letter touts Cambodia as a “diverse country” and that its citizens “enjoy all the freedom of a democratic society including … freedom of speech”. Yet post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia has a track record of perpetrating serious human rights violation against its people.

In March 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued its Concluding Observations on Cambodia. The Committee found that offences such as defamation and incitement had been vaguely formulated to prosecute human rights activists. Of greater concern were the reports of killing, harassment and intimidation used to silence opponents.

Minister Dutton, however, assured refugees that Cambodia is “free from persecution and violence”.

The announcement of the deal provoked a sharp increase in Cambodia’s anti-immigration sentiment. Incoming refugees are regarded as burdens that will divert scarce resources that were intended to support impoverished Cambodians. In addition sometimes violent tensions between the Khmer majority and ethnic minority groups have been extended to the refugees.

The letter further asserts that the refugees will be eligible for citizenship in seven years. The Australian government may very well have received assurances from the Royal Government of Cambodia about the refugees’ pathway to citizenship. But Cambodia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in the past should ring serious alarm bells.

According to Sister Denise Coghlan from Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia (JRS), Australia is desperate to “shelve [Australia’s] moral and legal responsibility off onto a country that is very poor”.

JRS is the only NGO that materially assists existing refugees and asylum seekers in Cambodia. Their report has shown that although the Law on Nationality does permit naturalisation after seven years, none of the 70 refugees currently in Cambodia have been issued with an all-important residency card. Effectively they have the same status as “legal foreign immigrants”, with some employment rights. However, most refugees lack the documentation (such as passport and residency card) to obtain work permits under Section 2 of the Labour Law.

Finally, the letter described Cambodia as having quality healthcare with “many doctors and hospitals that treat both Cambodians and foreigners”. This is an outrageous assertion given Australia’s own Smart Traveller website describes health services in Cambodia as “generally of a very poor quality and very limited in the services they can provide”.

Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in their most recent reviews of Cambodia, expressed grave concerns over the lack of adequate health services, especially mental health services, and the practice of arbitrarily detaining and imprisoning people with mental health issues in detention centres or prisons.

The poor mental health of some refugees detained in Nauru is well documented. Cambodia has fewer than 50 qualified psychiatrists and mental health receives less than 0.02 per cent of Cambodia’s health budget spending.

So why would Cambodia be so ready to accept this deal?

It is worth revisiting Cambodia’s aid dependency over the past 20-odd years. International aid makes up around 40 per cent of Cambodia government’s operating budget (some international NGOs estimate that aid contributes as much as 50 per cent).

This has created a survivalist agenda for Cambodian government to first and foremost secure the continued flow of international aid. It will agree to most external agendas imposed, but then seek to manoeuvre itself away from obligations to deliver concrete results.

As Monash University academic Andrew Robert Cock observed in his 2010 article, the Cambodian government utilises a “constant game of juggling and brinkmanship involving rhetorical observance of reform agendas, partial implementation and a constant calculation as to when external actors are sufficiently placated or too committed to the completion of their [objectives]”.

This is exactly what has happened. It is a commonly held perspective that the Australian government is manipulating a vulnerable country into accepting the deal. But it can also be viewed as the opposite.

Cambodia stands to profit massively from the promised aid and the country is unlikely to have the capacity or will to support refugees after the departure of Australian support. They will leave local and international NGOs to pick up the pieces, thus perpetuating the international aid cycle, neglecting to find a permanent solution.

Billy Tai is an independent human rights consultant and monitor based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Feature image: The streets of Phnom Penh. By ND Strupler/Flickr.