Immigration Minister Scott Morrison with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng

Australia’s boat-stopping supremo Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is hoping he has found an answer to a thorny problem: just who can help oversee the government’s internationally controversial decision to resettle refugees in south-east Asia’s second-poorest country?

Crikey has learned that officials in Cambodia have turned to the International Organization for Migration, seeking assistance from a UN-affiliated body to manage the lucrative resettlement deal after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refused to endorse the project.

“The Cambodian government wrote to the IOM recently asking us to assist in the resettlement program. The assessment team will determine what sort of support we might be able to offer,” IOM Asia Pacific spokesman Joe Lowry said last night.

The IOM has already dispatched a multinational team of officials to Cambodia this week — including its Australian chief of mission — to ascertain whether it is willing to assist a country with extremely limited capabilities to deal with refugees.

The IOM team has been in Cambodia since Tuesday and will continue to have meetings with officials there today, Lowry says. Australia has had a large team of its own officials, led by senior Immigration Department official Greg Kelly, in Cambodia for many months. Those same officials are understood to have sounded out the IOM during a swing through Bangkok two weeks ago, where both the IOM and UNHCR have their regional headquarters. The UNHCR was not asked to meet with the officials in Bangkok, UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan told Crikey.

It also remains unclear whether the Australian government has officially informed Thailand’s military government of its plan. Thailand is the destination for tens of thousands of illegal refugees from Cambodia who leave their country in search of jobs and higher wages.

Crikey has asked the Department of Immigration and Border Protection this and a number of other questions repeatedly in the past week but has received no reply.

Lowry says that the IOM team will soon file a report to the organisation’s director general, William Lacy Swing, who will then make a decision on whether the UN-affiliated NGO, largely funded by its 156 member states, will help. The IOM team includes the chief of mission of its Australian operations as well as officials from its global headquarters in Geneva and its regional headquarters in Bangkok.

Founded in 1951 and switching to its current name in 1989, the IOM’s brief is to help governments manage migration and it works in favor of the migrants, Lowry says.

Australia and Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding on September 26 for refugee resettlement after talks started in February this year, yet much about the deal remains unclear. The deal’s intention is to resettle asylum seekers who have been determined to be refugees, now in detention camps funded by Australia but outsourced to neighboring nations.

“Australia wants Cambodia to take refugees from Nauru and Manus Island, but it’s a Cambodian program of resettlement,” Lowry said. His comments mark a departure from the Australian government’s published aim of resettling refugees solely from Nauru.

Australia will pay Cambodia — a nation ruled with an iron fist since 1986 by authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen — a minimum of $40 million under the deal, plus undetermined resettlement costs.

On October 20, officials from Australia’s Immigration Department admitted that the offshore detention program has cost Australian taxpayers $1 billon in the past year, or almost $500,000 per asylum seeker. But Morrison subsequently said this cost was ameliorated by even greater savings due to the government’s program of “stopping the boats”, under which Australia’s navy has breached Indonesia’s sovereign waters on several occasions.

Despite more than two years of negotiations, Australia has yet to reach a deal with Papua New Guinea to resettle refugees in that country from the far-flung Manus Island detention centre. Australia reopened the Manus Island facility in 2012 after closing it in June 2004. In the interim, Australian aid to PNG has been lifted to record highs.

“This is a worrying departure from international norms. We are seeing record forced displacement globally, with 87% of refugees now being hosted in developing countries. It’s crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. “International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works. I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach.”

Australia, Cambodia, PNG and Nauru are all part of the IOM’s 156 members states — the two significant non-members of the organisation are China and Russia.

The latest bid by the Australian government to legitimise its offshore processing policies — viewed by some lawyers as illegal — came as independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie sent an application, naming the Australian cabinet including Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Morrison, to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands.

“In my application I have particularly named crimes against humanity, such as the forced relocation of people, obviously to the Republic of Nauru or Papua New Guinea,” Wilkie said.

Lowry says the IOM will likely issue a statement in coming weeks, but he could not put a concrete timetable on the decision for a situation he described as “delicate.”

Peter Fray

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