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Asia-Pacific

Jun 13, 2014

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In 1980, the head of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe, decided that one of the Catholic Church’s most influential orders must do something about the wave of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The wave of dispossessed people was a result of conflict that had wracked the region for decades. In Cambodia’s case, people had fled the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot, and there were 250,000 in camps on the Thai border alone.

In another era, another Coalition government opened its heart and its doors to those refugees.

Four years after Arrupe founded what would later become known as the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an organisation that now spans 51 countries, Tony Abbott — a man educated all his school life by the Jesuits — would enter St Patrick’s Seminary at Manly to study for the priesthood.

Abbott would leave the seminary in 1987 to pursue a career in journalism that would soon turn to politics. A year after that, Denise Coghlan, a Brisbane-born Sister of Mercy nun, would arrive in one of Thailand’s teeming refugee camps. Since then, the two Australian Catholics have taken very different paths. Abbott would eventually land in the Lodge, capping his political ambition and leading a very different kind of Coalition government.

Coghlan crossed from Thailand into Cambodia in 1990, chosen as one of a small team to help kick-start the reconciliation process. She has never left.

She now runs the JRS in Cambodia. Last Saturday Crikey visited Coghlan at her headquarters in outside the tourist mecca of Siem Reap, near the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Friendly, sharp and forthright, she was unafraid to opine on a range of topics, but the thing that has deeply unsettled her in recent months has been Tony Abbott’s plan to settle refugees in Cambodia.

Like anyone who has spent any time in Cambodia, a country with a tragic recent past and corrupt authoritarian government yet home to some of south-east Asia’s more gentle and friendly people, Coghlan knows that the country is no place for refugees. And she has dealt with thousands of them, from Vietnam, China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Palestine, Somalia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Kenya and Myanmar — the biggest group at the moment in Cambodia are Muslim Rohingya people who have fled sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Even if asylum seekers are resettled in Cambodia, few are likely to stay long term. Coghlan says that out of between 5000 and 6000 refugees handled in Cambodia since 1992, only 48 remain. Some have successfully gained sponsorship in places like the United States, Canada, Finland and Norway, and many others, she says, have simply “run away” to start the cycle over again.

Coghlan says there are no prospects for refugees in Cambodia. “Really there are very few people capable of giving mental health counselling, a major problem that emerged from the report on Manus Island,” she said. “We really don’t have jobs, unless you want to get less than $160 a month in the garment industry.”

In fact, countless Cambodians are forced to leave their own country to work in wealthier nearby nations such as Thailand and Malaysia, as well as in the Middle East.

“For young people who have ambitions to study there are no opportunities like that, either,” Coghlan said. “And Cambodia also has not worked out a proper system for identification documents, so refugees don’t have official documents that can tell them they can legally work or even legally reside here. It’s almost impossible for them to even open bank accounts.”

And that’s just if Cambodia lets refugees in. It has returned dozens of people from two legitimate groups of asylum seekers — Muslim Uighurs from China, and Vietnamese — to their home countries to face certain imprisonment, probable torture and possible death.

The Australian government has now engaged the International Organisation of Migration to help with its “Cambodian solution” to permanently resettle 100 asylum seekers in Cambodia. “What that means is Australia is now trying to see these people as migrants,” Coghlan says. “And there is a fine distinction.”

She believes Cambodia will endeavour to cherry-pick who comes in. “Cambodia wants economic migrants who invest money, will be economically self-sufficient and will move ahead. These are the only ones Australia wants, too, and the governments think they come by plane. Cambodia doesn’t want the psychologically damaged,” Coghlan said.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was reported to have told the Liberal party room last week that Cambodia was an “aspirational nation” that was determined to elevate itself from poverty.

But Coghlan says the government makes that very difficult for ordinary people. “When you look at Cambodia, it should not be that poor, it’s the distribution of wealth that’s the problem,” Coghlan said.

It’s unclear how much money Australia will hand to one of south-east Asia’s most corrupt  and abusive regimes, but it’s likely to be well above $100 million.

Abbott’s office told Crikey last night it thought he had never been to Cambodia. He and his ministers should sit down and listen to what Denise Coghlan has to say. Then the Australian Prime Minister might rediscover some of the compassion that led him to the seminary all those years ago.

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