A campaign organised by Cambodians has led the country’s first vice-president of the National Assembly to urge Australia to back down from its bid to resettle refugees there.
Kem Sokha said in a letter to the Australian Ambassador to Cambodia, Alison Burrows, that the deal to transfer up to 1000 refugees from Nauru could have “negative impacts which would possibly be caused by economic, social situations”.
Joyce Fu, who works for NGO Corner Link and was part of organising protests and petitions calling for the refugee deal to be abandoned, said Cambodia was ill-equipped for the plan.
“Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world,” she said. “More than half of its population are currently living US$2 a day. The entire country lacks access to some basic infrastructure, such as clean water, electricity and transportation.
“How could Cambodia take Australian refugees when it is creating refugees in its own country due to land grabbing from sugar cane and rubber plantations, dams and railway building and so-called urban development?”
Cambodian people, including monks, students, victims of land evictions and unionists marched through the streets of Phnom Penh on October 17 to deliver petitions to Cabinet, the National Assembly, the Australian embassy, the US embassy and the United Nations.
The protests called for local and international intervention to stop the agreement, which Fu said would not benefit Cambodian people or refugees.
Sokha met the campaigners and considered their concerns “well-founded”.
The Australia-Cambodia agreement, signed in September, would have up to 1000 “voluntary” refugees, held in Australian detention centres, sent to live in Cambodia. In exchange, Australia would provide an extra $40 million in aid over four years. Australia says the refugees would receive transitional housing, language training and health support, but the details are vague.
Cambodians and Australians are organising ongoing actions to try to overturn the plan. Fu said Cambodia was under growing pressure to back out of the deal.
However, Australia is a big aid provider to the poor and corrupt nation. The $40 million pay off would be on top of $79 million already allocated for the 2014-15 financial year.
It is Australia’s way of operating — instead of using its wealth and power to accommodate and support refugees in the Pacific region, it bullies and diplomatically coerces its poorer neighbours to cop the burden.
Then it washes its hands of responsibility.
This was the case with a group of teenage refugees “settled” on Nauru by Australia. Four refugees aged between 15 and 17 were attacked by a group of locals on October 26. They were beaten, hospitalised and told by the attackers they would be killed. “We have been targeted by local people of Nauru,” one teen told Fairfax media. “They attacked and came inside of our house and they were completely drunk.”
Fairfax said the attackers allegedly told the group: "All motherf---er refugees, we will kill you, this is our country and no one can protect you, not even Save the Children or Immigration."
Advocates have held fears since the reopening of the detention camp that the huge poverty and economic pressures on Nauru would lead to conflict between locals and the refugees, who never wanted to live on Nauru anyway.
Now that there is proof that Australia’s resettlement plan is causing violence, it is now Nauru’s problem to handle.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison told Fairfax that Australia was not responsible for the teens, saying the attack “is wholly a matter for Nauru”.
“People found to be refugees and settled on Nauru are no longer accommodated at the offshore processing centre.”
Liberal Senator Scott Ryan called the attack “appalling”, but also told Fairfax that Australia “cannot interfere in the domestic affairs of another country”.
Well, except for shipping in the army to build detention camps on their soil, or contracting private firms to run them, or having the navy enter their waters to send orange lifeboats full of people back to their shores, or overloading their hospitals with suicidal detainees, or dictating the terms of refugee resettlement in the first place.
Except for more than a century of Australia plundering Nauru’s natural phosphate reserves, causing the environmental degradation, poverty and unemployment that now makes it completely dependent on Australian aid.
Except for pressuring Papua New Guinea, Nauru and now Cambodia to take its unwanted, generally traumatised and vulnerable refugees, then dodging responsibility when it all goes wrong.
Australia cannot interfere with the domestic affairs of another country, except for when it does.