Australia and Cambodia sign refugee resettlement deal

A protester holds up a placard at a rally in Sydney on 26 September 2014, opposing Australia's plan to start sending asylum-seekers to Cambodia by the end of the year. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Australian activists held a lunchtime protest outside the immigration department offices in Sydney

Cambodia's government has signed a deal with Australia to accept some of its rejected asylum seekers in exchange for money.

Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed the deal on Friday with Cambodia's Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

Australia will pay A$40m (£22m, $35m) to the South East Asian nation over four years, and resettlement costs.

The deal has drawn stringent criticism from rights groups, who say Cambodia is ill-equipped to care for the refugees.

The deal has sparked small protests in Sydney and Phnom Penh.

Australia has in recent months introduced controversial policies aimed at ending the flow of asylum boats from Indonesia trying to reach its territories.

Mr Morrison had earlier said the deal "enables us to fulfil on the policy which says no-one will be resettled in Australia".

'Only genuine refugees'

In a joint statement, the two countries said they had agreed on an "initial trial arrangement with a small group of refugees", followed by further resettlement according to Cambodia's capacity.

Mr Morrison said only genuine refugees currently housed in a processing centre on the Pacific island of Nauru would be sent.

Under the deal, only those who chose to go to Cambodia would be resettled. Transfers were likely to begin later this year and there was no cap on numbers, he said.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Scott Morrison and Sar Kheng signed the deal on Friday afternoon
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption About 100 protesters outside the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh were fended off by riot police

Cambodia had said earlier it might take in between two and five people under the pilot phase, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

Mr Morrison said in the statement that Australia would pay for initial support to the refugees. It would also pay for Cambodia to develop resources to integrate the new arrivals.

Mr Morrison said the Cambodian government was "making countless efforts to develop the country" and was "demonstrating its ability and willingness to contribute positively to this humanitarian issue".

He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the A$40m would go towards various "development aid projects", and was on top of the A$79m that Australia already gave in aid to Cambodia.

Australia and asylum

  • Asylum seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - travel to Australia's Christmas Island by boat from Indonesia
  • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and early 2013. Scores of people have died making the journey
  • To stop the influx, the government has adopted hard-line measures intended as a deterrent
  • Everyone who arrives is detained. Under a new policy, they are processed in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Those found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG, Nauru or Cambodia
  • Tony Abbot's government has also adopted a policy of tow-backs, or turning boats around
  • Rights groups and the UN have voiced serious concerns about the policies and accuse Australia of shirking international obligations

Australia asylum: Why is it controversial?

Rights group say Cambodia is an impoverished nation with a record of corruption. They have pointed out that it has in the past sent back refugees to countries where they have been persecuted.

Amnesty International has described the deal as a "new low in Australia's deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers".

It accused officials of "putting the short-term political interests of the Australian government ahead of the protection of some of the world's most vulnerable people".

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Rights groups say that Cambodia is an impoverished nation ill-equipped to handle the refugees.

About 100 Cambodians protested against the deal in front of the Australian embassy, reported the Associated Press.

Activists in Australia also staged a demonstration outside the immigration department in Sydney.

Australia-based Refugee Action Coalition's spokesman Ian Rintoul said: "Rather than give the Cambodia government A$40m to undermine human rights, that money could have been spent providing real aid and services that are needed in Cambodia and Australia."

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