Australia's government appears to be close to finalizing a controversial deal with Cambodia that would allow asylum seekers it is holding in detention to be voluntarily resettled in the Southeast Asian country.
In its attempt to stop asylum seekers reaching the country by boat, Australia has pledged that those who are caught attempting the voyage will never reach the country. They are held in offshore detention centers on Nauru or Manus Island, from which the government intends to resettle them abroad.
Last September 24, Australia and Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding that paved the way for Cambodia to accept asylum seekers currently held on Nauru who are determined to be genuine refugees. The deal included a reported US$35 million dollars worth of aid for Cambodia.
Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Human Rights Watch criticized the arrangement, accusing Australia of dumping its human rights obligations on a country with a dreadful record in protecting refugees.
The process accelerated this week as a Cambodian delegation returned to Phnom Penh from Nauru on Monday after negotiations with Australian officials there.
"Our discussions are ongoing with Cambodia and I'll go to Cambodia shortly," Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday. He described the country as "very credible to deal with."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, has examined the refugee situation in Cambodia extensively. He told VICE News that Dutton's assessment was flawed, and described the Cambodian government as a human rights abuser of the first order.
"Just agreeing with whatever Canberra wants doesn't make a government credible," Robertson said. "Minister Dutton should know the difference between real commitment and feigned compliance when there is cash on the barrelhead. Australia is dumping its refugee protection obligations on Cambodia along with a wad of development 'aid' cash."
Cambodia on Tuesday said that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had agreed in principle to assist the transfer of asylum seekers who were found to be genuine refugees from Australian detention centers to Cambodia. IOM's involvement had been a requirement for Cambodia's government to go ahead with the deal.
IOM regional spokesperson Joe Lowry confirmed that the organization had given four conditions for its involvement.
"These conditions have been communicated to the government of Cambodia and are under consideration," said Lowry. "This matter is a confidential one between a sovereign state and an international organization and we will not make them public."
Robertson called on IOM to use its involvement to create greater transparency.
"As an inter-governmental organization, IOM should be prepared to speak up and say what conditions it has set for its participation in this program and make public its agreements with both Australia and Cambodia," he said. "I'm sure that both Canberra and Phnom Penh are thrilled that they have been able to entice IOM to play a role in this scheme. IOM had better watch out for damage to its reputation, since they are the ones who are going to be holding the bag if something goes wrong."
The country that detained asylum seekers might soon be calling home is markedly different from their intended destination of Australia. Last Thursday, a top Cambodian security official praised Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, saying that he had learned how to maintain social order by studying his methods.
"Speaking frankly, I learned from Hitler," National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha remarked to a gathering of officers, according to the Cambodia Daily. "Germany, after World War I, was not allowed by the international community to have more than 100,000 soldiers, but the Nazis and Hitler did whatever so they could wage World War II."
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated his 30th year in office last week. The 62-year-old strongman and former Khmer Rouge commander is the sixth longest serving political leader in the world today.
A Human Right Watch report published in anticipation of the anniversary charges that he has maintained power "through politically motivated violence, control of the security forces, manipulated elections, massive corruption, and the tacit support of foreign powers."
The report condemns Hun Sen's human rights record, claiming that he "has been linked to a wide range of serious human rights violations: extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship, bans on assembly and association, and a national network of spies and informers intended to frighten and intimidate the public into submission."
Cambodia ranks 154 out of 174 countries in Transparency International's corruption perception index. It is one of Asia's poorest countries — of its population of just over 15 million, over 4 million people live on less than US$1.25 a day — and job prospects within it are very limited.
Robertson said that these concerns have contributed to a dire situation for refugees who have fled to Cambodia.
"The quality of services available to refugees is miserable in Phnom Penh," said Robertson. "Those 60 or so refugees who have been accepted by Cambodia live from hand to mouth, without formal employment authorization and at the mercy of corrupt police who regularly extort those trying to make a go of it by working on the street."
"Today in the borderlands, Cambodian police are busy trying to hunt down ethnic Montagnards from Vietnam's highland areas fleeing political and religious persecution, and send them back into the hands of the Vietnam security services," he added. "Cambodia apparently has the false idea that their refugee protection obligations under the Refugee Convention are discretionary, depending on who you are, where you come from, and whether anyone — like Australia — is helping pay your way."
Australia's detention center on Nauru currently holds 895 asylum seekers, including 135 children. Their futures hang in the balance as the two countries broker a deal.
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