PHNOM PENH, September 28, (Khmer Times) – The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) resettling Australia’s asylum seekers signed Friday by Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng, appears to be weighted heavily in Cambodia’s favor.
While no stranger to garnering financial support from foreign countries, Prime Minister Hun Sen seems to have wrangled a particularly good deal on this occasion, at least in financial terms.
If statements by both governments hold up, the additional $35 million in aid that Australia is committing to Cambodia over the next four years, has virtually no strings attached.
The Australian government maintains that the numbers of refugees to be accepted in the Kingdom will be “determined by Cambodia” and will consist only of asylum seekers who voluntarily relocate, initially from the internment camp on the island of Nauru.
While the number of refugees was initially widely expected to be set around the 1,000-mark, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak reported in the press this week that the final numbers will probably be far fewer than is generally being touted.
Sopheak said that after piloting the program, the country would probably take between 10 and 100 refugees – not 1,000 as has often been stated by the media.
In what looks like a mismatch of expectations between the two countries, Minister Morrison stated Thursday that there will be “no cap” on the numbers of people to be relocated to Cambodia. He alluded to the possibility of eventually sending to Cambodia refugees now detained in Papua New Guinea.
While details of the agreement are not public, the press release issued at Friday’s signing ceremony, was confined to a vague statement about a general spirit of cooperation.
Human rights organizations criticized the lack of disclosure and transparency surrounding the agreement. This may explain why officials opted for a four minute photo opportunity, rather than a give and take press conference.
Morrison has been quoted in the media as saying the additional aid package offered by Australia will support the resettlement program, but will also be used for projects such as rice mills, election reform and demining activities.
Australian taxpayers may well be asking how the sum of $35 million was arrived at if it’s not tied to refugee numbers – especially at a time when Australia’s foreign aid budget has just been cut by $7.6 billion over the next five years.