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Australia's Cambodian Refugees Really, Really Don't Want to Get Sent Back

Detainees on Nauru have sewn their lips together in protest.

September 26, Phnom Penh. Civil society groups, led by monks from the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, held a protest in front of the Australian embassy. All images by Nicolas Axelrod

Five detainees on the South Pacific island of Nauru—including two unaccompanied minors—have stitched their lips together in response to the arrangement signed last Friday for Australia to palm off unwanted refugees to Cambodia in exchange for more than £21.5 million in development aid, according to Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.


"Inside the detention center there's really just despair and desperation," Rintoul told VICE. He explained that a 400-person demonstration went on late into Sunday night in the offshore asylum facility on Nauru, during which the detainees sewed their mouths shut. As he said, this is due to Cambodia's inadequate ability to provide for refugees. "It’s not a workable solution for anyone on Nauru," he added. "How many more statements do we need about the poverty and human rights issues there?”

Scott Morrison, the Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, was in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to sign the agreement last week, while about 100 protesters gathered outside the Australian embassy. Shortly after Morrison drained his champagne flute, a 14-year-old girl and a 24-year-old man also sewed their lips together during a 500-strong protest on Nauru. Another man is believed to be in serious condition after cutting his own throat. The ABC reports that a 16-year-old has attempted suicide by drinking laundry detergent.

Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott and Morrison are the figureheads of a relentless “stop-the-boats” crusade. Despite being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, no asylum seekers can currently be resettled on mainland Australia and all refugee-processing arrangements are outsourced to detention centers on Manus Island, Papa New Guinea, and Nauru. Under the military-led “Operation Sovereign Borders," launched in September 2013, Australia's navy has been put to use dragging boats of would-be asylum seekers back in to international waters. The UN’s Refugee Agency has described Australia’s latest maneuver as “a worrying departure from international norms” that could set a “disturbing precedent."


Protest signs highlight the financial disparity between Cambodia and Australia.

Morrison told ABC radio that Cambodia’s £21.5 million aid windfall would be spent on “very worthy” projects over four years, including land mine clearance, rice milling, and electoral reform. To ensure the aid reached its destination, “checks and balances will be in place,” Morrison said.

But Ou Virak, Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said, “There’s really no way of knowing if the money will be properly used, and if it’s not, then there’s not really anything Australia can do about it. It’s just being used to buy off Cambodia.

“Unless Australia has been sleeping under a rock on some very small island in the Pacific then they must know what’s going on. Half of Cambodia’s budget comes from the international community. The government has always managed to find ways to pocket cash without punishment. No one can be held to account because everyone’s in on the grand con-scheme to siphon off money. They’re looking to make a quick buck just like they’ve been doing for the past 20 or so years,” added Virak.

Cambodia is often ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and around a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.  Four garment workers were shot dead by military police during a protest demanding a living wage in January. The nation isn't exactly renowned for its exemplary treatment of refugees, either.

Over 20 ethnic Uighur refugees were forcibly returned to China in 2009 to face abuse and long prison sentences. Cambodia received a £74 million  in trade agreements from Beijing shortly thereafter. Hor Namhong, Cambodian Minister for the Interior at the time, justified the decision by saying it was an easy choice between spendthrift Chinese tourists and taking on refugees.

“Cambodia has also regularly captured and forced back to Vietnam persons fleeing persecution in that country, which is one of the reasons that so few Vietnamese asylum seekers remain long in Cambodia—they are too scared to do so," said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Cambodia currently shelters only 70 refugees and 20 asylum seekers among a population of over 15 million.

It costs £245,000 a year to keep a single asylum seeker on Nauru. For the 1,233 detained there life is by all accounts hard. Medical facilities are appalling, and detainees endure the intense heat and humidity of the island’s tropical climate, alongside frequent water shortages. Canberra is planning to palm off an initial group of two to five refugees from Nauru to Cambodia later this year. Hundreds more could potentially follow them on a “voluntary basis.”

“The next stage of this not so pretty play will be watching how Australia then ‘encourages’ refugees in Nauru to agree to be shipped off to Cambodia,” Robertson explained. “I expect that the way the refugees in Nauru will be treated, will toe a fine line between voluntary and what constitutes coercion.”