In January, Australia condemned Cambodia’s human rights record in the United Nations. Only nine months later, late last Friday afternoon in Phnom Penh, Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison awkwardly clinked champagne flutes with Cambodian officials to celebrate inking a memorandum of understanding that will resettle those seeking asylum in Australia in the country — it is now the only alternative they have to remaining in detention on the remote island of Nauru.
A bottle of that champagne costs about US$100 in Phnom Penh’s restaurants. That’s the same amount earned each month by factory garment workers in the country’s sweatshops, now being used by global manufacturers like H&M, Levi Strauss, GAP and many more.
The deal to lift minimum wages from US$80 to US$100 per month was only grudgingly accepted by former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister. Garment workers are seeking more, an extra $60 per month, but during a demonstration for higher wages in early January government forces, dressed as police but rumoured to be paramilitary, killed five people and injured dozens of others. This is the land of opportunity that the Abbott government is trying to sell to detainees and refugees on Nauru.
Those who want to learn about Cambodia will not be told ugly truths, but those on Nauru are still not happy, with protests about the deal breaking out on the island at the weekend.
In return for taking the refugees one of the world’s most corrupt regimes will be handed a minimum annual payment of $40 million — that’s effectively a signing fee to bump Australia’s aid to the country $119 million each year. In addition there are uncalculated tens of millions more for things from airport landing fees to “tailored” resettlement fees.
Yet the number of refugees heading to Cambodia, trumpeted as up to 1000 by the Australian government, could end up being far, far fewer. At the beginning of the program Cambodian officials said they would accept as few as five, and Cambodian press reports say the number may top out at only 100. That would barely make a dent in the 1000 on Nauru, only 230 of whom have been processed as official refugees.
As Denise Coghlan, the Australian-born head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, noted: “The Cambodians are very good negotiators.”
The memorandum of understanding also shows that Australia continues to dodge its obligations under the Refugee Convention. Third-country dumping is illegal, former Family Court chief justice Alastair Nicholson says, concerned over the 200 children now in detention.
Coghlan is particularly concerned about a clause in the deal that says Cambodia will provide necessary security for refugees, who will be housed in Phnom Penh until they attain basic Khmer language skills needed for survival. “What I fear is men with guns,” she said. Cambodian security forces, as garment workers learned to their peril in January, are uncommonly trigger happy. After their initial stint in the capital, refugees will be settled outside the capital, in provincial centres like Siem Reap and Kampong Cham, perhaps a good thing, says Coghlan.
Opposition to the deal came thick and fast from all quarters over the weekend, with Amnesty International describing it as a “new low”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was cynically included in the MoU without its knowledge. Yet High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said: “This is a worrying departure from international norms.”
“Refugees are persons who are fleeing persecution or the life-threatening effects of armed conflict. They are entitled to better treatment than being shipped from one country to the next.”
The detail in the MoU is often vague and much remains unknown, a fact exacerbated by Morrison’s continued refusal to answer any questions about the deal.
“Australia has already pumped millions of dollars into Nauru and Manus Island through our aid budget and all the infrastructure required, but they have still failed. So now we’re moving onto the next developing country that will take a hand-out from Australian taxpayers,” said Misha Coleman, Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce chief.
“How can Australia sit on the Security Council and expect other world powers to support us when we really need them, when we are withdrawing from our international agreements in areas such as International Refugee Law, which is a global problem, that needs global solutions?” Coleman asked.