As the Abbott government proceeds with its efforts to pass tough new immigration laws, its new “partner” for its refugee resettlement program — the authoritarian, repressive and deeply corrupt regime that has run Cambodia for several decades — is facing a stern test.

Will it adhere to legal obligations under the Refugee Convention it has signed?

Right now, its dictatorial leader Hun Sen is mulling over whether 13 refugees from neighbouring Vietnam will be sent back to almost certain detention — or worse.

Hiding in the mountains in the north of Cambodia are 13 Montagnards, members of a Christian sect that has lived in Vietnam for many hundreds of years. Montagnards have had a long history persecution at the hands of various regimes, most recently Vietnam’s Communist Party.

Cambodia’s recent history with Montagnard asylum seekers is poor. Over the past 15 years, it has sent thousands of members of the group back over the border, and news reports this week say the nation’s authorities are hunting down the latest ones, intent on treating them exactly the same way.

Meanwhile, the Australian government has been at pains to champion Cambodia as a nation prepared to accept its obligations to people seeking protection from persecution and harm as it promotes its ethically dubious scheme.

On Wednesday, the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees voiced the concerns of a range of human rights groups. The statement from the organisation’s Geneva headquarters said:

“UNHCR is deeply concerned at reports that Cambodian police are seeking 13 Montagnards with a view to deporting them to Viet Nam. The individuals are reportedly hiding in a border province in Cambodia’s north-east after leaving Viet Nam in recent weeks. The group had indicated that they wish to seek asylum in Cambodia.”

Since the creation of its Refugee Department in 2009, the Cambodian government has been responsible for receiving and adjudicating asylum claims. Both UNHCR and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have written to the Cambodian government urging that the 13 individuals be allowed to pursue refugee claims. The UNHCR said: “A joint UN-government mission to the border area was suggested to better understand the situation and facilitate the claims of the individuals.”

And here is the zinger for Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his intractable Immigration Minister Scott Morrison: “The involuntary return of the individuals to Viet Nam would represent a violation of international legal obligations which the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia has freely entered into,” the UNHCR said, urging restraint.

The situation could not come at a worse time for the Abbott government, already mired in mounting domestic problems and plummeting popularity. This week, high-level Immigration mandarin Mark Cormack was in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh for further talks with Cambodian officials. Both sides are trying to finalise the details of the resettlement program, with the biggest unknown being where, outside Phnom Penh, any refugees will be resettled.

It also remains unclear how many refugees Cambodia is prepared to take from Australia’s offshore processing centres — which the UNHCR as well as range of human rights lawyers say shirk Australia’s own international legal obligations. Repeated requests by Crikey to the Immigration Department and Morrison’s office for clarity remain unanswered.

But people familiar with the discussions have said the initial number of refuges that Cambodia will accept will be very small — between four and 10 — in exchange for a gift of $40 million plus from Australian taxpayers. Crikey understands that Australia is keen to also send refugees to Cambodia from the Manus Island facility in Papua New Guinea, with a planned resettlement deal in PNG appearing to be on permanent hold.

The importance of Cambodia keeping its obligations under the Refugee Convention cannot be overstated in terms of Australia’s rapidly fraying international reputation. It was Abbott, when in opposition, who opposed the plan by the Gillard government to process asylum seekers in Malaysia on the basis that Malaysia was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

Still, some slightly better news for the government on its widely condemned Cambodian solution may be coming soon. The International Organization for Migration, a UN-affiliated group funded by more than 100 countries including Australia, is close to making a decision on being a part of the process.

A multinational group of officials from the IOM visited Cambodia and, despite some misgiving, is understood to have recommended to the group’s leaders in Geneva to take part in Australia’s resettlement plan for the sake of the refugees who may take part in the scheme. The government hopes this will, finally, add at least a veneer of legitimacy to a plan that was rejected out of hand by the UNHCR.

But any mistreatment of the Vietnamese who are seeking help from Cambodia is likely to outweigh any participation from the IOM and will expose Australia to further international opprobrium.

What will perhaps be most telling, is whether Australia’s PM and Immigration Minister — both avowed Christians — will opt to support their fellow believers or, by their silence, the discredited regime with which they have struck their Faustian pact.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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