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Feb 24, 2014

Our new refugee ‘dumping ground’: what Cambodia thinks of the request

Australia now wants to send asylum seekers to Cambodia. Kevin Ponniah, a freelance journalist in Phnom Penh, reports while the government is conducive there are many questioning the fairness.

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.

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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16 thoughts on “Our new refugee ‘dumping ground’: what Cambodia thinks of the request

  1. Venise Alstergren

    The ‘Cambodian Solution’ to our refugee problem is beyond any realm of sense or reason. And whereas I have always had a dim view of Julie Bishop’s hold on reality, that she has paddled way out of her depth is blatantly obvious.

    Cambodia is desperately poor and, believe it or not Julie, is a culture foreign to Australians, who at least inhabit the same geographic area: let alone someone coming from Iran or the Sudan.

    Perhaps this is a clever ploy by the Coalition to put a bounty on escaping refugees to help defray the costs of all those multiple inquiries we are having foisted on us?

    Australia must be down to Dante’s seventh circle, thanks to the Liberal Party. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

  2. klewso

    They jumped into bed with Sri Lanka too.

  3. Andybob

    If she could send them to the moon, she would.

  4. MJPC

    There’s always Norfolk Island, they still have the old jails there, pity about them missing the roofs but that is probably a benefit for those pesky refugee’s to teach them a lesson.

  5. Dogs breakfast

    “Australia must be down to Dante’s seventh circle, thanks to the Liberal Party. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

    I think we might be looking at the 7th circle in the rear view mirror actually, Venise.

    You have to hand it to these Liberals, the brilliant insight, the cutting to the chase mindset. When we finally get up the guts to announce that we are also seeking the support of governments in Iran, Sudan, Syria, Darfur and Sri Lanka to take refugees then we will have solved the world’s refugee problem, and imagine how much all that boating, illegal and otherwise, air travel and first world paperwork will add to global GDP.

    So many problems solved!

  6. klewso

    “I just made ’em an offer they couldn’t refuse ….”?

  7. AR

    Perhaps they’ll be given work clearing minefields, as PoWs were in so many ugly conflicts.
    Like VA, I thought it couldn’t get any worse than Manus, Malaysia & Sri lank (a recruitment centre for the Manus director we learnt today!)but Cambodia – does DeathStare not have any inkling of common sense?

  8. Interrobanging On

    The appeal to an ex-Khmer Rouge cadre made good in Hun Sen of having his reputation laundered by the Liberal Party intent on getting rid of human refuse must be great.

    Military police gun down protestors in January, Liberal Party cosies up in February…

    Just like Abbott’s laundering of torture in Sri Lanka and probable white anting of a UN investigation into abuses there.

  9. colin skene

    What has this country become? Seriously, to what new lows can this disgusting government take us? Hopefully this is it,…the lowest point in human decency without a change in approach or more serious repercussions for those involved.

  10. Jimmyhaz

    So how exactly do we pick countries for this? Set up a dart-board with the names of small asian-or-brown-people majority nations, and throw darts until we hit a name?