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Refugee Deal Dead in the Water

Ros Chanveasna / Khmer Times Share:
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon in his meeting with Angela Corcoran, the Australian ambassador, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh yesterday. KT/Mai Vireak

The new Australian ambassador to Cambodia praised the Kingdom yesterday for taking in refugees from the island nation of Nauru, where Australia has controversially held refugees against their will in appalling living conditions in an effort to stop others from seeking asylum there.
Despite local and international condemnation of the detention centers on Nauru and the deal between Cambodia and Australia, which saw the Kingdom receive $40 million in exchange for taking in any amount of refugees, the Australian government has been steadfast in its support for the measure, with some government ministers going so far as to call it a success.
The facilities have been criticized by human rights advocates, with repeated cases of alleged abuse, rape and malnourishment happening to those detained there, according to an Australian Immigration Ministry report.
Angela Corcoran, the new Australian ambassador to Cambodia, met with Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon at the Foreign Ministry yesterday to discuss a variety of issues, including aid packages and further bilateral cooperation.
Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said the ambassador thanked Cambodia for its “highly valued” adherence to the Memorandum of Understanding on the settlement of refugees in Cambodia signed in 2014.
The Australian coalition government negotiated the deal in secret, with current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton hailing it as a success earlier this year, saying that since detaining most refugees on Nauru and only offering them the chance to reside in Cambodia, they have seen a decrease in the number of boats carrying migrants from Indonesia to Australia.
“The fact that we’ve had no drownings at sea and no successful boat arrivals I think is a pretty good outcome,” Mr. Dutton said in March.
But since the deal was signed, only five refugees have come to Cambodia. Critics of the deal said both governments were openly lying to refugees held on Nauru through “fact sheets” handed out that lauded Cambodia for its healthcare, safety and job market.
The refugees who came to Cambodia, three Iranians and two Rohingya from Myanmar, described appalling conditions and prison-like treatment, saying the country was not the same as the one described to them by Cambodian officials.
Last June and July, three of the five refugees went back to their home countries and the last of the refugees, a Rohingya man, opted to go back to Myanmar earlier this year despite the country’s open discrimination of the ethnic group.
In an interview with Fairfax Media in March, 26-year-old Mohammed Rashid complained that he had received only $4,000 of the $8,000 payout promised by the Australian government to persuade him to move from Nauru. He added that the other perks he was promised, such as good healthcare and employment, had not materialized and he said he regretted coming to Cambodia.
“If I am going to die, I should have stayed in Nauru and died there,” he told Fairfax Media.
Despite the deal’s failings, the government here said they were planning to bring another two refugees from Nauru to the Kingdom at the end of May, and planned for officials to interview them sometime in June.
Tan Sovichea, head of the Interior Ministry’s refugee unit, told Reuters in May that two Iranians had “volunteered” to come to Cambodia.
Yet when asked about the two Iranians who the government allegedly interviewed in June, Major General Kem Sarin, a spokesman for the immigration department, told Khmer Times yesterday that no more refugees would be coming to Cambodia.
Maj. Gen. Sarin even said no government officials ever actually went to Nauru in June to interview the Iranian refugees, refuting previous statements from government officials.
Mr. Sounry confirmed Maj. Gen. Sarin’s statement, curiously saying the topic of more refugees coming to Cambodia was not brought up at the meeting with Ms. Corcoran despite her praise of Cambodia for this exact topic.
In addition to the $40 million provided to Cambodia for taking in the five refugees, of which only $1.4 million was actually spent on the refugees themselves, Australia has pledged to provide more than A$90 million in 2016 for a variety of sectors including election assistance, landmine clearance, agricultural production, rural development and transnational crime.
The aid pledge comes despite calls for a reduction in the amount of development aid Australia gives to other countries.
“Regarding this cut down of budget policy, it will not affect Cambodia at all. Cambodia will still receive the same amount of budget with A$90 million for this year,” Mr. Sounry said.
Australian ministers have slammed the refugee deal as a waste of money, with the Australian opposition party’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles saying earlier this year: “The inability of this government to secure a meaningful resettlement arrangement with a credible third country is a serious failure.”
Despite Ms. Corcoran’s praise for Cambodia, it seems the refugee deal, which had been in its death throes for months, appears to have finally come to an end. 

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