During his visit to Sri Lanka, Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton said the transfer of refugees to Cambodia would “happen very shortly”.
Dutton said he wanted to send “a small group” to the south-east Asian country to “send a clear message to the remaining people on Nauru that Cambodia is an appropriate option to consider to start a new life”.
The Australian government has been trying to persuade refugees held on Nauru to volunteer to settle in Cambodia, which signed a deal with Australia to take refugees in exchange for aid.
An April 20 fact sheet authored by the Australian government told refugees that the “opportunity to settle in Cambodia is now available to you”. The fact sheet said accepting settlement in Cambodia would lead to “a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence”.
For refugees who have been separated from families by Australia’s refugees policy, the fact sheet adds: “If you settle in Cambodia, your family will be able to join you.”
But despite promises of financial support, services and accommodation in Cambodia, only four refugees have shown interest in going. Many of the rest have staged months of protest, carried out peaceful non-cooperation and produced video messages showing their dismay over being coerced into the Cambodia deal.
Refugees uploaded a YouTube video on April 28, after the fact sheet was distributed and a video message by Dutton was played inside the detention camp. Text at the start of the video read: “The government is trying to force those who suffered terrible conditions, for 20 months on Nauru … [to] go to Cambodia, itself a very poor country.”
Audio of refugees chanting “Cambodia, never, ever!” and photos of hundreds protesting followed an extract of Dutton’s lie-filled message.
The Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) has produced a fact sheet that refutes most of the immigration departments claims.
“Dutton claims Cambodia has a ‘stable economy’,” RAC’s fact sheet said. “Last year, Cambodia’s gross domestic product per person was just US$3300 after adjusting for the cost of living …
“This makes it the 48th poorest country in the world; poorer than Nauru, Bangladesh and Burma. Cambodia’s economy was devastated between 1975 and 1978 under the Khmer Rouge. It now largely depends on textiles, tourism and agriculture.”
Life expectancy is only 64 and there “is an average of one doctor for every 4300 people”.
The Australian government’s travel advice says “health and medical services in Cambodia are generally of a very poor quality and very limited in the services they can provide”.
RAC’s fact sheet says: “Dutton describes Cambodia as a ‘blend of nationalities’ and a ‘diverse nation’. In fact 90% of the population is of Khmer ethnicity, and 96% speak the Khmer language. The next largest ethnic group is Vietnamese (5%). 97% of the population are Buddhist. This lack of ethnic diversity is largely the result of genocidal policies pursued by the Khmer Rouge.”
The challenges for refugees and asylum seekers in Cambodia are wide-ranging, including poverty, food insecurity, illiteracy, unemployment, corruption and a weak legal system. And even though Cambodia has ratified the UN refugee convention and has refugee determination procedures in place, it also has provisions that could allow it to return refugees to persecution.
Dutton concluded his visit to Sri Lanka by tweeting: “Great trip to Sri Lanka meeting w/ key members of the SL Govt to talk people smuggling & strengthen our relationship”.
If he manages to see Sri Lanka as an appropriate place to deport Tamil refugees, it’s no wonder he sees Cambodia as a beacon of human rights.