After his self-congratulatory address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison finally admitted what has been relatively common knowledge in Cambodian and regional diplomatic circles, and the NGO community for some time: that finalising the Australian government’s deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia has become “frustrating”.

No kidding. Morrison’s office confirmed yesterday that discussions were ongoing, but the Cambodian government had been pushing back on the deal. Now the regional office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has joined other refugee and rights groups publicly slamming a deal in which it wants no part.

“We are deeply concerned about the precedent being set by this type of arrangement that in the first instance, transfers asylum seekers who have sought Australia’s protection to Nauru, in conditions that have previously been described as harmful, then re-locates refugees recognised in Nauru to Cambodia,” UNHCR regional spokesperson Vivian Tan said from Bangkok, in response to questions from Crikey.

“Asylum seekers should ordinarily be processed and benefit from protection in the territory of the state where they arrive, or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them.”

Tan says that in a time of massive displacement in places like Iraq, Syria and South Sudan, the “global refugee system is undermined when states deny access to territory for certain categories of asylum seekers and refugees, including those who arrived by boat”.

She ads that the UNHCR is concerned by any practice that goes against “the spirit of  international protection of refugees by relocating refugees to another country where they may not be able to access fundamental rights”, or that may allow a state that has signed onto the Refugee Convention — e.g. Australia — to divest itself of its responsibility under the Refugee Convention.

But even as Australia thumbs its nose at the Refugee Convention and tries to snuggle up to the despotic regime in Cambodia, it’s now unclear whether the deal will ever happen — although each week gossip circulates that Morrison is about to fly to Phnom Penh for the second time this year to ink the deal. So who knows?

The UNHCR and concern from other refugee agencies such as the Jesuit Refugee Service aside — and the Abbott government appears to not give one hoot about their opinion — the main fly in the ointment so far has proven to be the Cambodian government. The government initially appeared so eager to do a refugee-for-money swap with Australia (the figure that has been bandied about is $40 million) that its minister announced the deal in front of a visibly stunned Julie Bishop during her visit to begin talks on the deal in February. But now it seems the deal has stalled.

“Cambodia is the second-poorest country in south-east Asia after Myanmar; it is riddled with corruption … the country has a shocking track record with refugees…”

Son Chhay, a member of Cambodian Parliament in the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, and who was once a refugee in Australia, says the Cambodian government seems to have soured on the deal. Chhay, who graduated from Adelaide’s Flinders University, was quoted in The Cambodian Daily:

“I always wondered from the beginning why the [Cambodian] government was interested in taking refugees. But the government is reluctant now to make any agreement. It’s quite clear the government has no interest.”

Chhay also suggested that the government was holding out for a better deal — and it’s rumoured that it wants to start the program with a much smaller number of refugees than Australia wants to send. “Maybe it’s too little money,” he said. “Perhaps the deal is not benefiting the officials involved.”

Morrison should take heed, because that is exactly how Cambodia works. Cambodia is the second-poorest country in south-east Asia after Myanmar; it is riddled with corruption. Audits conducted by NGOs have proven that money meant for aid is siphoned off by officials, though Morrison denies this. The country has a shocking track record with refugees, returning at least 20 Chinese ethnic Muslim Uighurs to certain imprisonment and perhaps death in 2009.

Cambodia relies on foreign aid for about half its budget, so it will be desperate for extra millions to make up for any shortfall after Australia slashed its foreign aid program. However, it seems even the authoritarian Hun Sen regime may have its limits, even though Australia has provided Cambodia with $329 million in aid over the past four years.

The UNHCR said it is trying to help improve things in the country’s limited refugee infrastructure — Cambodia is currently processing 12 asylum seekers and has 68 refugees, and it has insisted that any people coming from Nauru do so voluntarily. Yet the question of what measures Australia is taking to educate them about such a momentous decision is likely to remain unanswered.

Last month Morrison sent senior Immigration Department bureaucrat Greg Kelly — whose most recent expertise has been in refugee detention, aid workers said — to head a 10-person visit to Phnom Penh to try to get the deal over the line. So far he has been scouting for locations for the detention centre far from the Cambodian capital, where there are few schools, hospitals or other essential services, according to The Phnom Penh Post.

Now it seems that the UNHCR, in addressing its concerns to both governments in writing and in meetings, has rebuffed efforts to get the organisation to give its imprimatur to a deal that no one much likes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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