Cambodian refugee resettlement deal branded 'official human trafficking'

Protest against refugee deal in Phnom Penh on September 26

As a deal to resettle refugees from rich Australia to Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, was signed in Phnom Penh on September 26, poor Cambodians displaced from their villages as a result of land-grabbing by powerfully connected developers, youth, monks and civil society activists marched on the Australian embassy.

Among these protesters was Pisey Ly, an activist with Social Action for Change (SAC), who was interviewed by Green Left Weekly.

“There was a group of monks, land community activists from Boeng Kak Lake and Kork Chkork in Battambang Province and youth who gathered this morning, aiming to march to the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh. But we were blocked by riot police before reaching the Embassy,” Ly explained.

“We don't agree with the Australian government's plan to send refugees to Cambodia and we are very disappointed that our government has made this agreement.

“There was no public consultation and no attempt made to hear the concerns of ordinary Cambodian citizens. I am sure as most Australian citizens also do not know the details of the deal either."

She added that the protesters were also worried about public insecurity over the refugee deal and whether the Cambodian government would be able to manage such a resettlement scheme.

“Some of the protesters this morning screamed out that they oppose to this deal because they have not been granted fair solution on their land grabbing and/or eviction. So, how Cambodian government could dare to agree to resettle refugees from a rich country like Australia?

“They said Cambodia is not a trash bin to be dumped refugees while the government has not addressing the severe social problems of Cambodian citizens who are protesting for justice almost every day.

“Poor public services, the lack of clear and reliable official procedures, a poor judicial system and a dysfunctional public administration remain the big challenges for Cambodian people. This is before mentioning the lack of the respect for human rights.”

Social conditions in Cambodia

Ly warned that there might not be opportunities for resettled refugees to have a decent livelihood in Cambodia.

“Many young Cambodian people, especially women, are migrating overseas to look for jobs because they cannot survive in Cambodia. They cannot repay their parents’ debt built up from all the expenses for needed agricultural materials for their small farms and for basic healthcare and education.

“Refugees resettled in Cambodia could fall into the same condition or even worse. Their dreams of escaping their countries at war or in political instability will have very little chance of becoming a reality.”

Cambodia is not yet a country that can accommodate refugee resettlement with adequate social protection said Ly, who has been working on sex workers' in Cambodia. The government's treatment of sex workers forced into rehabilitation under the 2008 Anti-Trafficking Law, does not give her any confidence that the government could run a refugee resettlement program.

“Sex workers were arrested and detained in the so-called rehabilitation centres with no basic facilities and social services. So how refugees sent here by Australia could be ensured of safe and adequately supported resettlement?

Ly is concerned that the that Australian government might imposed the condition under the deal forcing the Cambodian government to hire private companies to run privatised rehabilitation centres, just as the Australian government has been doing on Christmas Island and offshore detention centres in Nauru and PNG.

“If there are human rights abuses in the resettlement program, the Cambodian government pass the blame onto the private security companies and other private contractors."

Australia avoiding responsibilities

“I see this as an official human trafficking deal made by these two governments. The Australian government is trying to wash their hands of its legal responsibilities in violation of the UN Refugees Convention,” Ly added.

“The Australian government must stop imposing its will as a rich imperialist power on poor nations, using the bribe of offers of more development aid. It should stop its war against humanity, against the refugees who seek justice, freedom and protection.”

“I ask the Australian people not to just feel ashamed for their government. Australians with conscience have been living in shame for such a long time because of their government's participation in the Vietnam War, then the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and the indefinite detention, abuse and torture of asylum seekers. How can you allow this government continue its cruelty? Please mobilise and stand together for the truth and justice and stand up against your government.”

(Below: Photos by Peter Boyle of a September 26 snap protest organised by the Refugee Action Coalition outside the offices of th e department of immigration in Sydney.)

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