CANBERRA, Australia — Five asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Burma and Iran have agreed to be among the first to leave the Pacific island nation of Nauru for Cambodia under a deal that allows refugees rejected by Australia to be resettled in the Southeast Asian country, a refugee advocate said Monday.
Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Australia-based advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition, said none of the five men had had their refugee claims accepted yet.
While the bilateral agreement signed last September stipulates that those resettled in Cambodia must be genuine refugees who volunteered to go, officials in Nauru were inviting asylum seekers whose refugee claims have yet to be processed as well as bona fide refugees, he said.
“My suspicion is that they’ll delay the flight long enough so that they can fast-track their determination process and they’ll be granted refugee status before the plane arrives,” Rintoul said. “The government is desperate to save political face and there are serious questions about the bona fides of what they’re involved in.”
The government had expected the first refugees to move to Cambodia by late last year, but the asylum seekers on Nauru have proved reluctant.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office confirmed Monday that only genuine refugees would be resettled in Cambodia.
Of the 718 asylum seekers in Nauru from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, 485 had proven to be genuine refugees by the end of last month. Another 83 had their claims rejected and another 150 had yet to be assessed.
A fact sheet outlining the benefits that refugees would be provided with if they became the first to go to Cambodia, including free health insurance and cash, that was circulated by Australian officials around the detention camp in recent weeks said the plane could leave as early as Monday.
Dutton would not say when the first plane would leave Nauru or how many refugees it would carry. “It won’t be far off,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
“We’re having discussions with a large number of people on Nauru at the moment because we’ve made it very clear that those people will not be settled in Australia,” he said. “So we want to provide them with assistance in the first instance to go back to their country of origin. If they’re not prepared to do that, then we will provide them with assistance to go to Cambodia. That’s the option available to them.”
Rintoul said asylum seekers were being offered between 10,000 and 15,000 Australian dollars (US$7,800 and $US11,700) to go to Cambodia.
Human rights groups have condemned the deal as being dangerous for refugees and have called on Australia to fulfill its own obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention by resettling the refugees.
But Australia refuses to accept any refugees who attempt to reach its shores by boat. It pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to hold them in detention.
The five men who had accepted resettlement in Cambodia had been segregated from the rest of the Nauru camp, Rintoul said. They included three ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans, a Rohingya Muslim from Burma and one Iranian, he said.
An Iranian woman whose refugee claim had been rejected volunteered to go to Cambodia, but her offer was not accepted, Rintoul said.