Cambodia admits first asylum-seekers under Oz deal
Cambodia received its first batch of asylum-seekers from Australian custody on Thursday, with rights groups labeling them “human guinea pigs” for an uncaring policy by Canberra to offload refugees onto other countries.
The migrants — three Iranians and one ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar — were flown into Phnom Penh, the capital of one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations with a weak record of upholding human rights.
“They have arrived now and we already handed them to the IOM,” Chhay Bonna, the airport’s chief immigration officer told AFP, referring to the International Organization for Migration, which is tasked with helping the four settle in.
The refugees, three men and one woman, were greeted by Cambodian immigration officials and representatives from Australia’s embassy at the VIP section of Phnom Penh’s airport, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
The IOM said in a statement the group were being taken to temporary accommodation in the Cambodian capital where they would undergo language training as well as “cultural and social orientation.”
“They’re here, they’re healthy and we ask for privacy for them,” IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry told AFP.
Under Canberra’s hard-line immigration policy, asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are denied resettlement in Australia and sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, even if they are genuine refugees.
The controversial deal was inked last September to allow those granted refugee status in Nauru to permanently resettle in Cambodia.
Under the agreement, Cambodia will accept Australia’s unwanted refugees in return for millions of dollars of aid over the next four years.
Canberra will cover all direct costs of the settlement arrangement and refugees will only be moved to the Southeast Asian nation if they volunteer.
The arrival of the migrants was welcomed by Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. “I think we can demonstrate it can work for these four and others can follow,” he told broadcaster Sky News Thursday.
‘Human guinea pigs’
The U.N. has condemned the deal and refugee advocates said asylumseekers do not want to be sent to Cambodia, a country that has been criticized for its own record of helping refugees, particularly Vietnam- ese Montagnards who are deported.
The mainly Christian ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands have crossed the border to Cambodia in recent years to escape discrimination.
Rights groups hit out Thursday at the move to ship the first set of refugees to Cambodia under the deal with Australia.
“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society,” Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch said.
“These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an
often Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Cambodia’s “poor record regarding the treatment of asylum-seekers is well known.”
“It is hard to believe that the Cambodian people will benefit from an economic agreement between Cambodia and Australia over refugees,” she told AFP.
Conditions for those migrants rejected by Australia have raised alarm bells.
Asylum-seekers on Nauru live in mouldy tents and have little privacy, an Australian Senate inquiry heard last month, while former staff at the camp have said women and children were sexually abused.
Canberra says the government ordered a review into conditions in Nauru last year and has since addressed many issues.
The arrival of the four refugees in Cambodia comes as Southeast Asia struggles to handle a migrant crisis that has seen boatloads of persecuted Rohingya migrants and poor Bangladeshis arrive in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.