Cambodia to take Australia's unwanted refugees

By Kate Bartlett, Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cambodia’s consent to Australia’s request to accept refugees concerns critics amid poor SEA nation’s bad record with asylum seekers

Cambodia’s consent to Australia’s request to accept refugees concerns critics amid poor SEA nation’s bad record with asylum seekers

Phnom Penh – Cambodia has agreed “in principle” to Australia’s request that the poor Southeast Asian nation accept asylum seekers looking to resettle in Australia.

Amid the Australian government’s adoption of a tough stance toward refugees on its shores, Cambodia had said they would consider the request made during Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit to Phnom Penh last month.

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Tuesday “In principle we agree,” but declined to elaborate further.

Australia’s policy on asylum seekers has been roundly criticized by rights groups who say it is trying to off-load refugees onto poor third countries. In the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru already have detention centers housing asylum seekers stopped on their way to Australia, whose Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised last year to "stop the boats."

Critics are concerned about the plan to resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia given the country’s own chequered history in accommodating refugees. In 2009, the country deported 20 Uighur Muslims back to China where they were subsequently given lengthy jail terms, as is often the case with Uighurs forcibly returned there. A center housing Montagnard refugees who had fled Vietnam was also closed down in 2011.

Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, told the Anadolu Agency, “Cambodia has a bad record with the Uighurs and Montagnards.”

She added that Australia should accept sole responsibility for refugees trying to reach its shores.

Ou Virak, head of local NGO The Cambodia Center for Human Rights, expressed the same concerns.

“We’re very, very concerned given the poor record the Cambodian government has on treatment of refugees and human rights in general,” he told AA. “Australia thinks they can buy their way.”

PM Abbott promised in March that refugees trying to enter Australia by boat through PNG would be settled in the country's northern Manus Island. PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill likewise said that the permanent settlement would begin just after parliament finalizes arrangements before May.

A detention facility on Manus Island currently houses around 1,200 refugees, many of whom were found in Australian waters in unsafe boats after paying people smugglers in Indonesia to transport them to Australia.

In February, the center was rocked by two nights of rioting, during which a 23-year-old Iranian refugee was killed and around 100 people injured.

Australia is one of Cambodia’s largest foreign aid donors, giving more than $90 million a year to the impoverished nation where almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. 

The political situation in Cambodia has been tense since July’s national elections, the most hotly contested in years, with long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party retaining control while the opposition called for a revote, alleging widespread fraud.

The ensuing mass street protests calling for the government to step down have witnessed several bystanders being shot dead by police.

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