Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has asked Cambodia to resettle an unspecified number of refugees who have sought asylum in Australia — a request that has been met with bewilderment by many in this impoverished country of 15 million, where 20% of people live on less than $1.50 a day.

Bewilderment by rights activists and opposition politicians, that is. The Cambodian government has pledged to take the request “very seriously” and has even announced a working group chaired by the Interior Minister to examine the proposal.

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The Australian government does, after all, hold the purse strings to an aid package worth $85.3 million this year, and despite considerable economic growth in recent years, more than half of Cambodia’s national budget is still made up of international aid.

“You know that there are nowadays thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Australia, and Australia would like to see Cambodia accept some of the refugees to be settled in Cambodia,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters at a press briefing on Saturday after a meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Bishop, spilling the beans on what was perhaps a part of the diplomatic conversation that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade hoped would stay behind closed doors:

“We have told Australia that Cambodia will consider very seriously the request of Australia, because before there were many Cambodians seeking asylum outside Cambodia throughout the world — but now maybe it’s time for Cambodia to accept some of the foreign refugees in Cambodia.”

Bishop reportedly ignored questions on her way out of the media briefing. The government has still not specified what the Cambodians were talking about, only releasing a vague statement through the embassy that mentioned co-operation on people smuggling.

It’s unclear whether Cambodia is being asked to take asylum seekers processed offshore who are found to be genuine refugees — a state media report quoted the Cambodian Prime Minister’s assistant saying Australia had asked Cambodia to take “legal refugees” — or whether Cambodia is being asked to take in and process asylum seekers on its own.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were settled as refugees in the West in the late 1970s and ’80s after Pol Pot’s radical Communists took power and turned back the clocks to “year zero”, leaving behind a death toll of at least 1.7 million people. Following the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, which brought an end to the murderous regime, Cambodians flooded refugee camps on the Thai border. More than 13000 were settled in Australia between April 1975 (the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge) and June ’86.

“Cambodia is not going to let our ground become a springboard to political activity against anyone, because we are neutral.”

Son Chhay, a politician with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was one of them. His family settled in Adelaide in the early ’80s after months in a Thai refugee camp. “Cambodians have been through difficult times and understand how hard it is to be a refugee … so we should look at the proposal seriously and if we can help helpless refugees seeking a better place, we should consider helping them,” he told Crikey.

“But Cambodia should not be a dumping ground for the policies of the Liberal Party of Australia. The Australian government should continue to protect and look after genuine refugees so they are able to live with the freedom that all Australians enjoy.”

Cambodia, while a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, has a poor refugee rights record. In 2009, 20 ethnic minority Uyghur asylum seekers fleeing violence in China’s north-west, including a pregnant woman and two children, were forcibly deported to China while the UN Refugee Agency was still processing their applications. Days later, China signed over $1.2 billion in economic aid and investment to Cambodia.

“I am not sure the intentions of the Australian government, but certainly absurdity is there and is quite the first impression,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “The Cambodian government cannot even take care of its own people. [There are] gross violations of human rights in general, and I don’t expect the Cambodian government to protect the rights of refugees, particularly in cases where there is [political] sensitivity, [especially] with refugees from Vietnam or China.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan hinted that political refugees could find it difficult to settle in Cambodia. “Cambodia is not going to let our ground become a springboard to political activity against anyone, because we are neutral. We don’t want to engage against another government, [nor allow] political party groups to fight against any government,” he told Crikey.

Bishop’s request that Cambodia take refugees could also not come at worse time in Cambodian domestic politics. A political crisis that erupted after last July’s national election is yet to be solved, with PM Hun Sen facing the strongest opposition to his 29-year rule over the last few months from massive street protests led by the CNRP, which continues to boycott Parliament.

Unions representing garment and footwear workers — 500,000 of whom toil in the country’s factories making clothes and shoes for Western brands — have called another mass strike for next month to demand an increase in their minimum wage from $95 to $160 per month. Last month, striking workers violently clashed with security forces and at least four people were killed. Public protest has since been banned.

“Foreign Minister Bishop has set a new low in this shameful, rights-abusing proposal,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an email. “Rather than pressing Cambodian leaders to end their human rights abuses, she is astonishingly enlisting them to aid in Australia’s shirking of its obligation to asylum seekers and refugees.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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