Cambodia solution? Fresh plan to dump refugees

Saturday, April 12, 2014
Cambodia's foreign minister Hor Namhong meets his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in February.

The former Labor government tried and failed with its ill-conceived "people swap" deal with Malaysia in 2011. Now, the Tony Abbott government has said it may try a resettlement deal with the even poorer nation of Cambodia.

After talks with foreign minister Julie Bishop in February, her counterpart, Hor Namhong, said Cambodia was considering an offer to resettle refugees from Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison visited Cambodia again this month, to discuss "regional cooperation to deal with asylum seeker movement".

This has sparked fears from the Greens, former Cambodian media correspondents and human rights experts that the Coalition government plans to dump refugees there. The plan appears to be not a detention centre, such as the one on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, but general "resettlement" without support, work opportunity or accommodation.

A refugee law centre at the University of New South Wales says that even though Cambodia has ratified the UN refugee convention and has refugee determination procedures in place, it also has provisions that could "expose refugees to refoulement (return to persecution)."

The Andrew & Renata Kaldor International Centre for Refugee Law said: "Cambodian law does not protect asylum seekers from return to arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment … Without a consideration of such claims, there is a risk of refoulement contrary to Cambodia's obligations.

"If Australia were to transfer asylum seekers to Cambodia without guarantees that such claims would be assessed, then it would also be in violation of its own international obligations if asylum seekers were subjected to refoulement."

Cambodia has a record of colluding with countries from which people who sought its protection fled. In 2009, the government labelled 20 Uighur asylum seekers "illegal immigrants" and despite protests from the United Nations and the US, deported them to China. The members of the ethnic minority were fleeing a Chinese government crackdown and reports later alleged four of those returned had been sentenced to death and 14 sentenced to life imprisonment.

Cambodia has also forcibly returned Montagnard refugees to Vietnam where they face ethnic and religious persecution.

In the case of the Uighur deportees, the benefit to Cambodia was revealed when the China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, visited the day after their repatriation and signed US$1 billion of contracts.

Australia's $85 million in aid smacks of similar "cooperation".

Even refugees with legal status must then contend with the many human rights problems in Cambodia, such as poverty, food insecurity, illiteracy, unemployment, corruption and a weak legal system.

Cambodia made international headlines in January when four striking garment workers were shot dead and many more injured during a brutal military intervention against workers. The commander of the Phnom Penh Municipal Military Police, major general Roth Srieng, defended the shootings saying: "We cannot allow them to block the road and we have to crack down on them."

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights described it as the "worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in 15 years".

Corruption and ongoing obstruction of investigations into participants in the Khmer Rouge regime also remain concerns for many. The foreign minister who met with Bishop recently dismissed a summons to appear before the Khmer Rouge tribunal after a witness accused him of running a re-education camp under Pol Pot.

Son Chhay, a member of Cambodia's opposition said Cambodia cannot cope with Australia's offshore-dumping plans: "Cambodia is not a rich country. We have to find a way to help the refugees. But not to fall under the Australian policies of dumping refugees."

As the richest country in the region, Australia uses its economic and political power to scapegoat the world's most persecuted people and coerce impoverished nations like Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia into accepting the burden of the global refugee crisis.

When Labor tried its "people swap" with Malaysia in 2011, human rights lawyer Julian Burnside told Green Left Weekly: "Sending people to a place where we can be confident that their human rights will be violated is worse than sending them to a place which will do what Australia tells it. But both are unacceptable.”

The same can be said for any Coalition deal to send its asylum seekers to Cambodia — or any other third country for that matter.

Nauru and Manus Island may be horrific and producing new atrocities all the time, but as long as they are in Australian-funded detention centres, there is still a chance — though limited — to hold the treatment of refugees held there to account.

But "resettlement" in Cambodia risks vulnerable people being lost in the system.

The "debate" on asylum seekers has been twisted far to the right. Nothing the Coalition does — offshore detention, turning boats back to Indonesia, forcibly deporting and transferring refugees by the hundreds and outsourcing resettlement — will ever truly stop people trying to seek asylum; people flee when they need to.

But the government is instituting widespread regional oppression to ensure they stay in Third World states with little legal protection.

From GLW issue 1005