Cambodian officials have played down the possibility of more refugees coming to the country after US officials interviewing refugees held in the Australian-run Nauru detention centre left the facility abruptly on Saturday.
The move raises questions over where the detainees will go if they cannot be resettled in America.
Australia and Cambodia signed a controversial deal on refugee resettlement in 2014, when Australia promised $40 million in aid in exchange for Cambodia taking refugees from Nauru.
The deal was widely slammed by human rights advocates in Cambodia and Australia.
In the years since, most of the small handful of refugees who came to Cambodia have returned to their home countries.
Kem Sarin, spokesman for the General Immigration Department, said yesterday: “Even if the US stops interviewing refugees in Nauru, it has no bearing on the deal with Cambodia, which has always been based on voluntary principles.
“No one was ever forced to come to Cambodia. If they felt they could come and live here in peace, they were welcome to come.”
Former US President Barack Obama agreed with Australia late last year to offer refuge to up to 1,250 asylum seekers.
In exchange, Australia pledged to take Central American refugees from a centre in Costa Rica, where the US has taken in a larger number of people in recent years.
However, US officials halted screening interviews and departed the Pacific island of Nauru on Friday, two weeks short of their scheduled timetable and a day after Washington said the US had reached its annual refugee intake cap.
“US officials were scheduled to be on Nauru until July 26 but they left on Friday,” one refugee told Reuters.
The Australian Immigration Department declined to comment on the whereabouts of the US officials or the future of a refugee swap agreement between Australia and the United States that President Donald Trump earlier this year branded a “dumb deal”.
An indefinite postponement of the deal would have significant repercussions for Australia’s pledge to close a second detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island on October 31. Only 70 refugees, less than 10 percent of the total detainees held in the camp, have completed US processing.
“The US deal looks more and more doubtful,” Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said. “The US deal was never the solution the Australian government pretended it to be.”
Australia wants close both Manus and Nauru detention centres, which are expensive to run and have been widely criticised by the United Nations and others over treatment of detainees.