Should Australia's refugees be sent to Cambodia?

A Cambodian rights activist (C) clashes with police officials at a protest next to the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh Image copyright AFP
Image caption A small group of protestors gathered outside the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh

The handwritten sign said it all: "Australia pls kindly explain why you intend to transfer refugees from your country to Cambodia?"

That question was one of several scrawled on paper placards and shouted by dozens of noisy demonstrators gathered at the Australian Embassy in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, on Friday.

"If they are not good enough for Australia, why are they being dumped in Cambodia?" a protester with a loudhailer intoned.

The demonstration was organised by Buddhist monks who normally fight for the rights of those abused by the Cambodian government. They are incensed that Australia would foist refugees on a poor country which already struggles to provide even basic services to its own people.

At the protest Son Chhay, an opposition MP, said Cambodia had rarely accepted refugees in the past.

A financial incentive - Canberra will reportedly spend A$40 (Ā£22m, $35m) million over four years - had likely swayed the deal. "Cambodia is famous in corruptionā€¦ This deal cannot be a secret deal," he said.

'No future'

Image caption The deal could eventually involve people currently at an off-shore detention facility in Nauru

For months, officials have worked secretly on the agreement that will see refugees Australia does not want transferred to this country of 15 million people.

It is the physical manifestation of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's 2013 election campaign mantra, when he vowed to "stop the boats", promising those travelling in rickety vessels that they would not receive a one-way ticket to a good life.

Referred to cynically by some as Australia's "Cambodia solution," the deal could eventually involve people held in Australian off-shore detention facilities on the tiny Pacific Island of Nauru.

Those sent to Cambodia will have anything but an easy life, says Mohammed, who has lived for four years as a refugee here.

A member of Myanmar's Rohingya minority, Mohammed fled in 2008 to escape discrimination against Muslims and bouts of forced manual labour on government projects.

Mohammed says he is barely surviving and he sees "no future" in Cambodia.

"Cambodia is a very poor country. To find a job is difficult. There are no opportunities," says the 32-year-old, asking that only his first name be used.

After four years, he still has no official residency papers and wonders if he ever will. Jobs are scarce so he survives off earnings from a food cart. But the kickbacks demanded by local officials means his profits are meagre.

"Jobs available here are for Cambodians," he says, adding: "lots of Cambodians are jobless".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A group of protestors gathered at the Australian Embassy ahead of the signing of the refugee deal

'Human rights abuses'

Mohammed is one of only some 70 people officially recognised as refugees by the Cambodian government.

That figure is certain to change following the agreement signed on Friday.

Ahead of the signing, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said resettlement in Cambodia would be strictly voluntary.

Those who chose to go would "be afforded all the same rights under Cambodian law and those that exist under the Refugee Convention," he said.

It is such pronouncements that have many worried. Cambodia is not known for upholding either the rights of its citizens or those of refugees.

"Australia's deal with Cambodia will send people to a country that has a terrible record for protecting refugees and is mired in serious human rights abuses," said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch.

There is no shortage of examples.

Inappropriate and immoral

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Human rights groups have condemned the agreement citing Cambodia's human right record

In one of the most flagrant contraventions of its responsibilities under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Cambodian police in 2009 deported 20 ethnic Uighurs back to China despite the group having received letters of protection from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

The Uighurs faced secret trials on their return to China and several were reportedly sentenced to long prison terms.

Two members of the Falun Gong movement were forcibly deported to China in 2002, the same year that a dissident Vietnamese Buddhist monk was abducted, bundled into a car and dumped back in Vietnam. All three had been granted UN protection.

Much the same fate befell hundreds of ethnic minority Montagnards fleeing repression in Vietnam between 2001 and 2004.

UNHCR regional spokesperson Vivian Tan said countries should work together to solve refugee problems instead of asking others to deal with them.

Australia was setting an "adverse precedent" sending refugees to Cambodia, which was not on "an equal footing with Australia in terms of rights, opportunities and international standards of integration," she said.

Unicef, Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia and others joined forces this week to speak out, calling the deal inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal.

"It is inappropriate because Cambodia has no capacity within its social sector to take an influx of refugees. Immoral because these vulnerable people are Australia's responsibility, and while we await the detail, it appears illegal in contravening Australia's humanitarian and refugee obligations to vulnerable children and families," said Alastair Nicholson, former Chief Justice of Australia's Family Court, on behalf of the group.

'Better than no place'

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protestors say Cambodia already struggles to provide basic services to its own people

Ladan Rahlan knows well the reality of being a vulnerable child refugee in Cambodia.

She was six when her parents, members of Vietnam's Montagnard ethnic minorities, fled to northeast Cambodia in 2004. Food and drinking water were in short supply. Troops and soldiers were in pursuit.

Montagnards had protested in Vietnam's Central Highlands for land rights and religious freedom. Authorities responded with a harsh backlash and mass arrests.

Ladan and her family were lucky. They avoided capture by Cambodian and Vietnamese forces and were eventually taken under UNHCR protection and resettled in the US.

Back then, due to close political ties with Hanoi, the Phnom Penh government didn't offer the Montagnards a resettlement "solution" in Cambodia.

"At that time I was very frightened," recounted Ladan, who is now 17, and lives in North Carolina.

Ask Ladan about Australia's plan and her response is practical: "It's better than having no place to go at all".

Mohammed, the Rohingya refugee, believes that if a large number of refugees are sent to Cambodia, they likely won't stay long, and will soon try to find somewhere better.

"If Australia sends 1,000 people to Cambodia, maybe one year later all will not be here," he says, adding they will likely flee again - possibly to Thailand where living standards are higher.

Cambodia, Mohammed says, "is not the right solution for them".

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