Cambodia refugee 'solution' full of risk

July 18, 2014
Rally in support of refugees, Melbourne. Photo: Tony Iltis

The Australian government's efforts to pressure Cambodia to take refugees from Christmas Island is fraught with risks, experts told a forum organised by the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) on July 14.

Kyja Noack-Lundberg from RAC told the meeting that Cambodia could soon be signing a memorandum of understanding with the Australian government to resettle refugees from Nauru.

The deal being negotiated between Australia and Cambodia appeared to be on track in May, however news of it has all but disappeared from the media since then.

Noack-Lundberg told the meeting there were 2400 asylum seekers in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island, and it was likely more than 1000 people would be resettled in Cambodia if the deal went ahead.

The Cambodian government insisted it would take only refugees who voluntarily wish to resettle there.

But immigration minister Scott Morrison has publicly raised that refugee claims by those who refuse to volunteer should be questioned: "Resettlement is a voluntary process but it does raise a very interesting question though that if someone who says they are persecuted is offered a safe country where they can go and if that country is not to their economic liking then I think that does raise questions about the claim."

Noack-Lundberg said: "Morrison’s own words ... are a good illustration of the precarious nature of determining what is voluntary and what is coerced in this situation."

Noack-Lundberg said there are compelling reasons for Australia to meet its obligations to accept refugees for resettlement, rather than outsource them to underdeveloped nations in the region.

Australia is a signatory to the refugee convention and a wealthy country.

Noack-Lundberg said: "We have the 10th highest per capita GDP in the world … Cambodia, on the other hand, even according to the DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] website, remains one of the world's least developed countries, with an estimated GDP per capita in 2012 of US$934.

"Cambodia currently only has 69 refugees, mostly Rohingyans from Burma, who are living in the community with no support ... There is very limited infrastructure for resettling refugees.

"In Australia, we have infrastructure in place for processing and resettling refugees and we definitely have the money, especially since [the Australian government is] projected to spend $4 billion over four years on processing and border protection deterrence methods."

AID/WATCH chair Matt Hilton was critical of Australia's motivations for pursuing the Cambodia deal.

Hilton is the author of Off the Rails, a scathing report an Australian Development Bank and AusAID project in Cambodia to rehabilitate its railways. The beneficiaries of the funding were not Cambodia's poor, but private companies, such as Australian company Toll Holdings, which runs the railways.

Hilton said $380 million from Australia's foreign aid budget had been diverted by the government into funding offshore refugee detention programs.

He said human rights groups in Cambodia oppose the refugee deal. Serious concerns about the country include private company land grabs, attacks on labour rights, corruption and impunity for the wealthy, and Cambodia's failure to prevent torture.

Cambodia's record on treatment of asylum seekers is also cause for concern, Hilton said, citing the deportation of Uighur refugees from China and Vietnam by Cambodia to torture and murder.

Rosanna Barbero, Coordinator of the Addison Road Community Centre, and Chair of Womyn's Agenda for Change, an NGO in Cambodia, took up the question of why Cambodia would agree to the deal, and outlined the policies that have shaped the development of Cambodia over four decades since the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

Barbero told the audience that after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia became the first UN administered state, and there was an explosion in non-government organisations in the country.

Online news source The Diplomat estimates there are about 3500 registered NGOs in Cambodia, the second-highest number of NGOs per capita.

Barbero said this "rule by NGOs and the UN" led to the delegitimisation of the Cambodian elected government as well as the accelerated implementation of a neoliberal agenda imposed by Cambodia's reliance on international aid.

"The government were forced to privatise and to commercialise," Barbero said.Mining and fishing concessions were sold off, land became a valuable commodity. "It was fast-forward capitalism,” she said.

After decades of international development aid, Cambodians are still extremely poor. Barbero said people are forced to cross borders or travel to big cities from rural villages to find work.

"Australia is the fourth-largest aid donor to Cambodia," Barbero said.

This explains Australia's motivations for pursuing the deal, and the pressure on Cambodia to take it.

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