The bill for the Abbott government’s cash-for-refugees deal with Cambodia looks set to soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison admitted there would be “no cap” on numbers in the new resettlement plan.

Morrison will ink the controversial deal at 3pm Cambodian time in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, capping six months of negotiations delayed by fresh demands from Cambodia and aimed at giving him a long-term dumping ground for persecuted people seeking shelter in Australia.

Under the deal Cambodia  — whose authoritarian regime is notorious for siphoning off aid money — could become, after Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the third biggest destination for Australian taxpayer dollars offshore.

Morrison says $40 million has been committed to the scheme — on top of the existing annual aid payment of $79 million — but seemingly unlimited additional payments will be handed over to Hun Sen’s kleptocratic regime to help resettle people and build refugee infrastructure in a country that forces its poorest people to pay for their own power poles and lines if they want electricity.

The first refugees under a voluntary scheme will not arrive until probably early next year, as south-east Asia’s second-poorest country has limited infrastructure to a accommodate refugees, with its refugee facilities and processing described by the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees as nascent.

Cambodia is a country of desperate poverty, where state-sponsored murder, torture and forced land confiscation are de riguer, and opportunities are extremely limited even for its local people. Youth unemployment is extremely high in Cambodia, with only a fraction of the jobs needed each year by high school and university graduates available in the country.

On a recent trip to Cambodia, Crikey spoke to a number of students, all of whom planned to head to Thailand to seek employment, where average salaries are US$400 a month. At least 2 million Cambodians now live and work in Thailand, sending large slabs of their pay home to support families struggling to survive.

Buddhist Cambodia is also largely hostile to Muslims, one of the key groups languishing in Australia’s high-security detention centres.

Despite pleas from the Australian government for its stamp of approval, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has continued to oppose the deal, spokesperson Vivian Tan told Crikey. Cambodia’s opposition National People’s Rescue also opposes the deal.

It’s not just international humanitarian aid groups and politicians that have slammed the deal. It has caused one of Abbott’s long-time friend’s and confidants, Australian Jesuit priest Father Mick Kelly, to express his anger at the deal. Based in Bangkok for the past five years, one of his many stints in the region, Kelly has first-hand experience of the poor treatment refugees are exposed to in the developing nations of south-east Asia.

“The way the Australian cabinet is treating people seeking asylum and those who are subsequently granted refugee status is both against international law and the teaching of the Catholic Church and every other Christian church I know of. Those who call themselves Christians in this cabinet and this Parliament will know, if they are true to themselves and their beliefs, that what they are doing is wrong,” he said.

“I have known Tony Abbott for 35 years; we are friends and share Catholic convictions and allegiance. But I am disappointed and frankly puzzled at this path he has taken. It seems to me to be about not much more than power. The agreement between the Australian government and Cambodia not only rightly offends the ordinary Australian sense of fairness. What could possibly be seen as fair in sending a group of people desperate enough to take their lives in their hands and flee their homeland only to have the people that receive them pack them off to a country known for its abusive treatment of its own citizens?”

Crikey understands refugees with a limited grasp of English and none of Cambodia’s Khmer language may be offered the lure of family reunions in order to try and boost the numbers who choose to go to Cambodia.

There are just 68 refugees currently in Cambodia, and dozens of then are waiting on application to move elsewhere, with Canada being a popular escape route. At present, refugees in Cambodia are denied a range of what Australians would consider basic rights, including bank accounts and the ability to obtain drivers’ licences. Yesterday, Morrison suggested — as he pulled out his chequebook — that Australian refugees would be offered the same “rights” as Cambodian citizens. But such “rights” would be an affront to any Australian, including, crucially, the lack of any credible legal system.

Hun Sen, a former member of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, has ruled the nation since 1986. Under his rule a small handful of elites have prospered, siphoning off huge licks of aid sent by other nations, according to audits.

On the evidence of an interview to the ABC this morning, Morrison — who has spent just one day in Cambodia — is in denial, blaming the rest of the world for “keeping the country [Cambodia] in the cellar”. He should read some history. Abbot and Morrison are preparing to put the lives of desperate people — and Australia’ s international reputation — in the hands one of the world’s most despised despots. And for what?

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.