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…And Stay Out! Australia Signs a Deal to Unload Refugees Onto Cambodia

On Friday, one of the world’s wealthiest nations convinced one of the world’s poorest to take in its unwanted refugees. Australian officials say they hope to resettle 1,000 asylum seekers or more in Cambodia in the near future. They plan to send the first few later this year over from the tiny island nation of ...

Omar Havana/Getty Images
Omar Havana/Getty Images

On Friday, one of the world’s wealthiest nations convinced one of the world’s poorest to take in its unwanted refugees.

Australian officials say they hope to resettle 1,000 asylum seekers or more in Cambodia in the near future. They plan to send the first few later this year over from the tiny island nation of Nauru, one of two locations where Australia offshores unwanted visitors. In return, Cambodia will receive about $35 million in development aid.

As a Cambodia-based satirist tweeted, the deal "is a bargain for Canberra, so it’s a win-win, if you don’t count the refugees. Then it’s a win-win-lose. #cambodia #badideas." Human rights groups say the plan will essentially make Cambodia a "human dumping ground" for asylum seekers that Australia is unwilling to accommodate.

Cambodia’s record with asylum seekers is questionable, to say the least. The country has a long history of flouting international law and taking money in exchange for returning members of persecuted groups to countries like Vietnam and North Korea that once mistreated them. In 2009, Cambodia sent more than 20 asylum seekers from the Uighur ethnic minority group back to China at the request of the Chinese government, which then handed them long prison sentences for their alleged involvement in deadly riots earlier that year. Shortly thereafter, China pledged Cambodia $1 billion in aid.

As David Manne of Australia’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre told the Sydney Morning Herald, Cambodia "is barely able to look after the needs and rights of its own people, let alone those of refugees." The country is still struggling to recover from years of civil war and Khmer Rouge rule that spawned its own refugee crisis, pushing hundreds of thousands into Thailand, the United States, and other countries. More recently, Cambodia’s been the scene of rampant human rights violations, with government forces shooting protesters and detaining several political opposition members in the past year.

The asylum seekers themselves, for what it’s worth, are less than thrilled about their potential new home. While officials from both governments say that any refugees who resettle in Cambodia will do so voluntarily, the deal’s announcement met with only boos among detainees in Nauru on Friday. One of them called the plan a "cruel deal" and told the Guardian, "No one will go. People will refuse…. To be thrown away like rubbish, this is not fair, this is not what Australia should do."

Australia is clearly aware of Cambodia’s human rights record — Australian officials called out the government’s abuses in Geneva just this year. But that hasn’t stopped Australia from insisting that its poor neighbors like Cambodia ought to bear more responsibility for refugees, who, along with economic migrants, often come to Australia on boats hoping to flee persecution in countries like Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres pointed out on Friday that developing countries actually already host 87 per cent of refugees. But a "Stop the Boats" attitude has gained ground in Australia in recent years. The phrase became a rallying cry for both of Australia’s major political parties in last year’s election, and within days of becoming prime minister in September 2013, Tony Abbott launched Operation Sovereign Borders, a military patrol that he boasted would allow no "boat people" to make it into Australia (regardless of refugee status claims). Over the summer, Sovereign Borders intercepted a boatload of Tamils fleeing intimidation and the threat of torture and has been holding them in limbo on Nauru as the courts hear their case against being sent to Sri Lanka.

As one of the first countries to sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Australia is in theory committed to allowing in and protecting refugees — people with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" in the country they’ve left. But Canberra, which is now considering replacing the Convention’s requirements with its own policy, has long taken its own road.

To deter asylum seekers, Australia in 2012 reopened infamous offshore detention centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where more than two thousand people, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, are currently detained in unsanitary and confining living conditions. As of May, the average detention time for asylum seekers was 275 days. Meanwhile, Australia has been trying to finalize permanent resettlement agreements with Nauru and PNG like the one with Cambodia.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told journalists earlier this month that these deals would benefit everyone. "We are world renowned for what we do on refugee resettlement, so who better is placed than Australia to work with a country such as Cambodia to help them develop that capability to do the job as well?" he asked.

World renowned? Maybe. But if so, for all the wrong reasons.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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