September 24, 2014 | the guardian
Australian immigration minister will later this week seal controversial agreement to move refugees from Nauru to southeast Asian nation.
Cambodia and Australia will sign a controversial refugee resettlement deal later in the week, which will facilitate the transfer of refugees who have arrived in Australia and been transferred to the tiny island state of Nauru to be resettled in the impoverished southeast Asian nation.
Neither Australia nor Cambodia has shared details of the deal with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), despite serious concerns it will break international law.
The Cambodian government said on Wednesday that Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two governments on Friday.
Morrison later released a statement confirming the two countries would sign an MOU later in the week but gave no further details on the content of the deal.
According to a statement released by Cambodia’s ministry of foreign affairs and international co-operation, Morrison will pay a two-day visit to Phnom Penh starting on Friday and will co-sign the memorandum with Cambodia’s interior minister, Sar Kheng, at 3pm.
Negotiations between the two countries began in February, when Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, paid a visit to Cambodia.
But the full details of the deal have not been publicly disclosed and refugee advocacy groups, as well as the UNHCR, have expressed concern about the welfare of the refugees upon their arrival in Cambodia.
Vivian Tan, a UNHCR press officer in Bangkok, said in an email to Guardian Australia on Wednesday that she did not have the details of the agreement, because the UNHCR has not been a party to it, but have “expressed our concerns to officials of both governments based on what we know about it”.
“The UNHCR is worried about the adverse precedent being set by this type of arrangement that in the first instance, transfers asylum-seekers who have sought Australia’s protection to Nauru, in conditions that have previously been described as harmful, then relocates refugees recognised in Nauru to Cambodia.
“Asylum-seekers should ordinarily be processed, and benefit from protection, in the territory of the state where they arrive, or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them,” Tan added.
She said the UNHCR is also concerned that the practice of relocating refugees to other countries “where they may not be able to access fundamental rights” enables countries to divest themselves of their responsibilities as regards the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Human rights groups and legal bodies in both Australia and Cambodia have said they have not been consulted on its contents.
Numerous groups have voiced serious concerns that the resettlement deal is in violation of Australia’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention.
The Cambodia Daily reported on Wednesday unconfirmed details that the deal that the deal could be worth $40m.
The Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, described the impending MOU as a “dirty refugee deal”.
“Cambodia doesn’t have the capacity to look after these refugees, but the Abbott government simply doesn’t care,” Hanson-Young said.
“As one of the poorest nations in the world, Cambodia struggles to care for its own citizens, let alone the refugees that Australia wants to dump there.
“Those most at risk if the Abbott government goes ahead with this shameful deal will be vulnerable young women and girls.
“This is not what a regional solution looks like, this is cruelty.
At present, refugees coming to Cambodia rely heavily on support provided by NGOs such as the Jesuit Refugee Service. It assists with helping new arrivals find accommodation, attend language classes, and also provides small start-up loans.
However, Cambodia has a poor record with regard to its duty of care toward refugees. In December 2009, on the eve of a $1bn investment deal with China, Cambodia forcibly deported to China 20 Uighurs whose applications for asylum were still being processed. Of these, two were children and one of the women was pregnant. The decision was met with outrage from Amnesty International and the World Uyghur Congress.
Hanson-Young said that the Greens have received advice that the Australian government would need to get the resettlement deal approved by parliament.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said it was “disgraceful” that the agreement was “being rammed through in secret, with no public consultation despite concerns raised by Cambodian civil society”.
“Australia is undermining refugee protections by sending people to a country that is both ill-equipped to handle refugees and has an awful track record of not protecting asylum seekers,” Pearson said.
Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh, said the news of the impending MOU was “stunning,” particularly because of a failure of the Cambodian government to consult with civil society groups.
She said she had not seen the MOU, but understood it to be accompanied by two other documents; an implementation guideline and another, more detailed, daily plan.
When asked if the Jesuit Refugee Service had been consulted, she said: “Absolutely not. It was a secret – it sort of came out of the blue between Julie Bishop and [Cambodian prime minister] Hun Sen [in February].”
“I didn’t expect to be consulted, and maybe because the whole thing is shrouded in secrecy. I’m not sure any civil society was consulted. It would be good to consult the refugees,” she said.
Sr Coghlan did meet with Greg Kelly, an official sent over by Australia to begin working as a counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, in August.
“I presented him my reservations about the [deal] and said I was quite pessimistic, whereas he was hoping to be optimistic