Australia Deal to Send Refugees to Cambodia Damaged, Say Critics

By Rod McGuirk 8 September 2015

CANBERRA, Australia — A multi-million dollar deal to resettle refugees from an Australia-run detention camp on the Pacific nation of Nauru to Cambodia has been irreparably damaged by a Rohingya refugee’s decision to go home to Burma, the opposition and refugee advocates said on Tuesday.

Only four refugees—two Iranian men, an Iranian woman and the Rohingya man—took up the offer of cash, free health insurance and accommodation to resettle from Nauru to a gated community in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in early June.

The four are pilot cases for another 637 asylum seekers on Nauru who were hoping that Australia will accept them.

A Cambodian official revealed this week that the 24-year-old ethnic Rohingya man from Burma wanted to give up his refugee status and return to his homeland. He had been in contact with the Burma embassy in Cambodia.

Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government had agreed to pay AU$55 million (US$38 million) for the Cambodian deal, which did not solve the problem of where to send asylum seekers who want to live in Australia.

“As an option, Cambodia has amounted to an expensive joke,” Marles said in a statement.

He said Abbott’s government does not have a “sensible” solution for the asylum seekers on Nauru.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was in Europe and has not commented. He said in May that he expected the first refugees to resettle in Cambodia would be a success story that would encourage other refugees on Nauru to follow. Cambodia will only accept refugees who come voluntarily.

Paul Power, chief executive of the national umbrella group Refugee Council of Australia, said the Cambodia experience would only discourage others.

“The fact that someone who’s fled such an appalling situation in Myanmar wants to go back there rather than stay where they are, it’s a pretty devastating condemnation of the practicality of what the Australian government has constructed there,” Power said.

Ian Rintoul, Sydney-based director of the Australian advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition, said he spoke to all four refugees before they left Nauru and none intended to stay in Cambodia. They’d hoped to collect lump sums of about $10,000, which never materialized.

“They thought they were going to get enough money to go somewhere else—it’s as blunt as that,” Rintoul said.

The International Organization for Migration, which helped settle the refugees in Phnom Penh, declined to comment on the Rohingya’s circumstances.