The Australian government is telling refugees in Nauru outright lies about the reality of life in impoverished Cambodia, which has been ruled by a ruthless dictator for almost 30 years.
Its efforts are outlined in an extraordinary five-page document, “Settlement in Cambodia Fact Sheet”, which was issued to refugees and obtained by Crikey.
But it appears the Abbott government has a strange understanding of “facts”.
The document states that the first flight to Phnom Penh will be as early as April 20, which is next Monday. It was last updated on April 10.
Yet Crikey understands from a number of sources that there has been no interest from refugees currently in the Nauru refugee camp and that as of last week, the Cambodian government had received no applications for resettlement. It is also understood that extraordinary pressure is being applied by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection — the result of pressure from cabinet — on detainees in an effort to get “some bums on planes”, as one insider put it.
The document states that the average monthly wage in Cambodia is $130 and that “residents have a good standard of living”. Only in Canberra can anyone think that $130 a month buys a good standard of living anywhere.
Decent working people I know in Phnom Penh live three to a tiny room, have no indoor plumbing, and bare wood or dirt floors. And these are not the poor people.
The fact sheet states that Cambodia is safe. It is not, especially after dark. I personally know at least three people who have been mugged in the past year, including one female friend. On my second-to-last visit — I have been about 10 times in the past two years — thieves on a moving bike tried to wrest my mobile phone from me while I was travelling in a tuk tuk. Oddly, the document states that here are no problems with stray dogs — again an outright fib.
The document says that Cambodia is a democracy, yet Prime Minister Hun Sen took charge — after 12 years of coexisting with rivals — in a coup d’etat. While there have been elections since, Hun Sen has never lost. The opposition and aid groups audited the last election and found multiple irregularities, including ghost voters and opposition supporters missing from the rolls. The legal and prison system is utterly corrupt, something I also know from first-hand experience trying to help a friend trapped in the system.
The fact sheet states — twice! — that Cambodia has “good healthcare for the region”. More nonsense: anyone with anything serious is medi-vacced to Bangkok. Only Laos and Myanmar have worse healthcare in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Then there is the money being thrown at the problem. Refugees are promised four years of housing, healthcare, education, Khmer lessons and support, all paid for by the Australian taxpayer, yet we do not get any of the benefit of these people’s enterprise.
After laying out a Cambodia that only exists in the minds of Canberra bureaucrats, the documents then details packages worth tens of thousands of dollars in a last-ditch effort to convince some of them to move to Cambodia under the highly questionable resettlement deal (decried by the United Nations) that Australia struck with Hun Sen last year.
The fact sheet also states that Australia will make efforts for refugees to be reunited with their families if they move to Cambodia (the packages could be worth well in excess of $100,000 in family cases).
The deal with Cambodia was inked by former immigration minister Scott Morrison in an embarrassing ceremony during which he swilled champagne with Hun Sen’s cabinet ministers.
Details have never been released to the Australian taxpayer, although it is understood a payment of at least $40 million will be made to Hun Sen’s government, which has an audited track record of embezzling aid funding. About 50% of Cambodia’s budget comes from foreign aid. Its government heavies live in high-security places, and most of its population lives in poverty. It is the second-poorest country per capita in south-east Asia and may soon be overtaken by Myanmar, which is now outstripping it in GDP growth.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians work illegally in neighbouring Thailand — some are enslaved in that country’s notorious human trafficking industry, which Thailand’s present government finally seems to be targeting. There are few jobs for university graduates, and the country’s main exports industry, the chronically underpaid garment trade, is home to some of Asia’s most notorious sweatshops.
In the period since the grubby deal with the Abbott government was signed, Cambodia has shown its refugee colours. Dozens of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam fleeing persecution have been returned, while many more remain in hiding from Hun Sen’s thugs. But the fact sheet cheerfully insists: “In Cambodia, there are jobs for migrants, and strong support networks for newly settled refugees, including opportunities to buy businesses.”
The real kicker is that once they have agreed to resettle in Cambodia, the Australian government washes its hands of the refugees. The only country that can have them back is Nauru, a questionable position, like much of Australia’s refugee policy.
The Cambodian government has a track record of returning refuges to their original country of persecution. The country is offering to take the refugees from Nauru for one reason only: millions of dollars from Australia.
Any government and bureaucracy capable of attempting to barter its shameful human cargo with such lies and blandishments has clearly chucked its moral compass overboard.