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Australia’s Effort to Dump Refugees on Cambodia has Backfired at a Cost of $40 Million

After resettling four asylum seekers from Nauru at $10 million each, Cambodia's Interior Ministry says they've done enough.
September 1, 2015, 12:00am

Former Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signs last year's agreement with Cambodia. Image via

It seems the naysayers were right. When former Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced last year that Australia would relocate asylum seekers from Nauru to Cambodia at a cost of $40 million over four years, he declared " checks and balances" would ensure the program delivered value for money.

Yet one year later, and with only four asylum seekers resettled, the Cambodian Daily is suggesting the deal is off. "We don't have any plans to import more refugees from Nauru to Cambodia," Interior Ministry spokesman, Khieu Sopheak told the paper on Friday. "I think the less we receive the better."

This certainly seems to contradict an interview with ABC Radio last September, in which Scott Morrison suggested, "there are no caps on this and this will just be an ongoing arrangement."

After the Australian Government released no comment of their own, Labor's immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, described the affair as an "expensive joke." "Once again we are learning about this through comments from ministers in the Cambodian government rather than ministers in our own government," he told Sky News.

In June four asylum seekers were resettled in organized accommodation in Penong Penh—one Rohingya man, and three individuals from Iran. It's understood this small number came after intense lobbying by Australia failed to attract volunteers at the Nauru Detention Centre, even after a "Cambodian Information Hub" was assembled in an empty shipping container.

Understandably for displaced people seeking asylum, Cambodia is an unattractive option. The country is notable for its own humanitarian nightmare with the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, while their own ethnic minorities continue to face persecution today. And then there's the issue of government corruption.

The anti-corruption organization Transparency International ranks countries on their levels of budget transparency. Cambodia is scored at 15 out of 100, while their accountability is described as "scant or none."

One of the most thorough investigations into the link between foreign aid and corruption was conducted by a Cambodian social researcher named Sophal Ear. As he wrote in 2013, international aid annually contributes 94.3 percent of the government's budget, which enables it to run an almost entirely extractive economy. Cambodia has become "a kleptocracy cum thugocracy," wrote Sophal, "and the international community, led by the UN, is its enabler."

Not that Australia's deal with Cambodia needed to fall over for this to become clear. Back in September, Ou Virak, Director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights told VICE that, "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." As he warned, somewhat ominously, "the government has always managed to find ways to pocket cash without punishment."

So where does this leave Australia? The original memorandum stated that "the Government of Australia will bear the direct costs of the settlement arrangements," and that "the number of Refugees settled... will be subject to the consent of the Kingdom of Cambodia." As several news agencies have observed, this loose wording seems to leave Australia owing the agreed total, regardless of how few are transferred. And as a Senate committee has uncovered, Australia has already forked out $15 million in the first year alone.

While the Australian Government faces this financial mishap, Europe is struggling with waves of migrants in numbers unseen since World War II. Recently German Chancellor Angela Merkel even went so far as to describe the crisis as representing a bigger challenge to Europe than Greece's ailing economy. In comparison, Australia's approach to refugees is looking particularly uncharitable.

The UN's high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, summarized it best last year: "International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works," he wrote. "I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach."