Refugee Women in Cambodia

By Carla Silbert | 05 Feb 15

In recent weeks, a delegation of Australian and Cambodian government officials has visited Nauru to progress the transfer of refugees for resettlement in Cambodia. The visit follows a deal made in September 2014, which provides that Cambodia will accept refugees from Australia who are currently in Nauru awaiting resettlement and will provide them with basic services and support following their arrival.

Australia’s agreement with Nauru specifies that Australia must resettle the refugees it has detained there in “a safe third country”, a prerequisite the Australian Government considers to be fulfilled by Cambodia. As plans to encourage refugees to volunteer for resettlement in Cambodia move forward with the International Organisation for Migration now willing to assist in their transfer, questions arise as to whether the impoverished Southeast Asian country truly is the “safe-haven” for refugees that Australia claims it to be.

The deal has attracted extensive criticism, which largely condemns the Australian Government for shirking its responsibility to refugees by resettling them in a country that has a poor track record of fulfilling its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and that lacks the social and economic stability necessary to properly care for this vulnerable new population.

Cambodia’s extreme poverty, lack of accessible education and health care, political unrest and endemic corruption have all been raised as fundamental barriers to its capacity to provide for a community in need of services which are inaccessible to most Cambodians. The difficulties in accommodating refugees in Cambodia are overwhelming, yet to date, little consideration has been given to the specific obstacles that marginalised refugees will face.

In particular, refugee women will encounter a range of challenges to integrating and thriving in their new home. The impacts of resettlement are many, and the gender dimension of these impacts must not be overlooked. While little is known of how the deal will be implemented, officials have provided no indication that the offer for resettlement will not be extended to women and their children currently in Nauru. Considering the potential fate of these refugee women makes clear that the Australian Government’s decision that Cambodia is a “safe third country” was not made with the needs of women in mind.

Australia received 2682 female asylum seekers by boat between 2012-2013 alone, placing them in offshore detention. The vast majority of these women are under 30 years old, most commonly fleeing from violent and oppressive conditions in Sri Lanka, Iran and Afghanistan.

With a large number of refugee women also being single heads of households, ensuring their safety and equality upon resettlement is vital. But one only has to look to the everyday experience of Cambodian women to raise serious doubts as to whether Australia is sending these women to an environment in which their safety will be assured.

Women in Cambodia routinely struggle to access health services, education, economic opportunities and participate politically as a result of overwhelming gender inequality. Cambodia is ranked 105th out of 149 countries in the Gender Inequality Index. Only 9.9 per cent of women are educated to at least a secondary school level, less than half of the number of men who achieve a secondary-level education. Women’s employment opportunities are similarly lacking, with women over-represented in the garment industry and comprising 90 per cent of Cambodia’s garment factory workers. Yet, they rarely hold managerial or leadership positions.

Violence against women in Cambodia is rife, with the highest incidence of gang rape in the region. Both intimate-partner and non-partner violence are disturbingly high, with one in three Cambodian men reporting having perpetrated physical or sexual violence against a woman.

Despite this high rate of offending, women face severe challenges in accessing justice. Few prosecutions for violence against women proceed or result in convictions, reflecting a lack of belief in complainants, cultural shame in pursuing prosecutions, and corruption within the investigation and legal process that often requires informal payments to be made for proceedings to continue.

Despite the lack of safety and opportunity they encounter, Cambodian women have formed strong networks amongst themselves and developed activist groups that have placed them at the forefront of protests for improved labour conditions and land rights.

These public demonstrations have been met by harsh government crackdowns on the ability to hold protests, resulting in eruptions of violence with protesters beaten and killed and women human rights defenders routinely imprisoned. These women activists remain undeterred by the ongoing threats to their safety. Their commitment to defending their rights brings hope that change will soon occur.

“For refugee women, Cambodia is still too fragile a setting for their safety to be assured.”

Cambodia is a country still healing from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime and the conflict under Vietnamese occupation that followed. Nearly 40 years after these events, the country continues to suffer from the effects of the destruction of individuals, families and communities, and from the scars left on the national psyche, as it strives to make way for the rapid social and economic development that is now taking place. Within this delicate state of transition, women are strongly advocating for increased respect for their rights, giving equal social relations the chance to emerge.

Using Cambodia as a dumping ground for refugees on which Australia has turned its back has the potential to put unmanageable pressure on a social and economic structure that is only just starting to find its way forward.

For refugee women, Cambodia is still too fragile a setting for their safety to be assured. Being resettled in a place where opportunities for women are so highly restricted and violence perpetrated against women is so commonplace, under the guise of placing them in a “safe-haven”, exposes these women to great harm and severe insecurity.

For women fleeing persecution, being placed in a new home of oppression is certainly no refuge.

Carla Silbert is a writer, lawyer and gender equality advocate. She is currently based in Phnom Penh where she works in strengthening women’s access to justice.

Feature image: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr