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'Trading Refugees for Money’: Four of Australia’s Failed Asylum Seekers Arrive in Phnom Penh

Only four out of 718 people accepted the Australian government's offer, despite being housed in conditions that Amnesty International has called "toxic" and "inhumane."
Photo by Mak Remissa/EPA

Four refugees arrived in Phnom Penh on Thursday. The three Iranians and one Rohingya man from Myanmar landed around 10am on Malaysian Airlines flight MH754. They exited Phnom Penh airport's VIP terminal — usually reserved for royalty and foreign dignitaries — half an hour later in a white minibus with the curtains drawn, followed shortly by a second van containing Australian officials.

Australia has taken a hard line against asylum seekers; those arriving by boat are sent to holding camps in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. These four refugees came as part of Australia's controversial deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia. The deal was struck last year and is worth more than $40 million to the cash-strapped Southeast Asian nation. Australia has agreed to pay resettlement costs for one year and the refugees have been promised $10,000, health insurance, and language lessons.


"The group has transferred to temporary accommodation in Phnom Penh," wrote the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in a press release. The IOM, who are acting as facilitators to help the refugees through the process of resettlement, urged the press to respect the wishes of the refugees who requested that their identities remain secret.

Photos by Nathan A Thompson 

The four arrivals are the only ones to accept the Australian government's offer of resettlement in Cambodia out of 718 people currently being held in the Nauru detention center, in conditions Amnesty International described as "toxic" and "inhumane."

Perhaps that's because Cambodia is still ranked as one of the world's poorest countries and has a poor record of housing refugees. Indeed, Cambodia has been refusing asylum to the stream of Montagnard people fleeing persecution in Vietnam all year and have already deported at least 54.

"These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs," Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch, told the BBC on Thursday. "[And the] experiment ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm's way in Vietnam and China."

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Perhaps this is why the Australian government has been trying to sell the idea of a new life in Cambodia so hard. Their charm offensive has been going on for months. A letter was sent out to all detainees on Nauru in April describing Cambodia as "a safe country, where police maintain law and order. It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs."


The letter was widely derided for being untrue. "Cambodia has many stray dogs," Nou Chamnan from the Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society told VICE News. And "violent crimes, especially armed robberies, continue to occur," claims a 2013 report from the US Department of State.

But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Cambodian government, is sure his country is a good choice for the refugees. "Cambodia's GDP is growing at 7.5 percent annually," he told VICE News. "Our local population is 14 million and many foreigners enjoy living here. I was a refugee [in America] but I moved back to Cambodia and made a success of my life. We'd like to share that opportunity with the people on Nauru."

'The policy has been wrong from the beginning'

After the letter failed to rouse enthusiasm, Australia's immigration minister, Peter Dutton, took a harder stance. In a video address he assured the people on Nauru that there was no chance they would be allowed to settle in Australia and if they did not relocate to Cambodia they could expect to spend up to 10 years in the detention center.

Australia's hardball approach to dealing with asylum seekers has been a vote-winner for Tony Abbott's Liberal-National coalition government. Indeed, "stop the boats" has become something of a personal maxim for the Australian PM.

It's because the number of asylum seekers attempting to access Australia illegally by sea has spiked in recent years. According to government figures, more than 18,000 people landed in 2012 and 2013 compared with 5,166 between 2010 and 2011. Now, anyone caught goes directly to one of several detention centers.

As for the three Iranians (a single man and a couple) and the Rohingya man who have just arrived in Phnom Penh to start a new life, the future is uncertain. They are guaranteed payments and support funded by the Australian government for one year but after that, they're on their own.

But for many refugee advocates the whole thing is a bit sordid. "The policy has been wrong from the beginning," says Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International. "Australia is failing to meet their obligations under the international refugee convention and it sets a dangerous precedent where it is okay to trade refugees for money."

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