Words by Neha Babu
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s agreement with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng to relocate asylum seekers from Nauru into the developing nation was signed amidst warm handshakes and the delicate clinking of “customary” champagne flutes. The deal will see four of five refugees, currently on Nauru, resettled in Cambodia, with more expected to join the program in the future.
“We’re not rushing this – it’s important we get the arrangements right. There are many challenges in running a resettlement program here, we know that,” the Minister said.
A document leaked to Australian journalists shows that the deal would entirely be funded by the Australian government, expected to cost taxpayers over $40 million. Upon arriving in Cambodia, the refugees would be provided with health insurance and temporary accommodation in the capital city Phnom Penh, before being relocated outside the congested area. Whilst participation in the resettlement program is voluntary, the number of refugees to be resettled would be determined solely by the Cambodian government.
However, the five minute ceremony was at stark contrast to the mass of protesters rallying outside the Australian embassy. More than 1,000 Cambodians, including monks, students and union representatives took to the streets of Phnom Penh, to voice their disgust at the deal and demanding that it be abolished.
In Australia, the mood is similarly tense. Several human rights groups have accused the Abbott government of abrogating its international responsibilities regarding refugee assistance, labelling the deal as “shameful.”
“In January the Australian Government condemned Cambodia’s human rights record at a UN human rights hearing, but will now relocate vulnerable refugees, possibly including children, to the country,” Amnesty International spokesman Rupert Abbott said.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, agrees and has urged Australia to reconsider. In a press release he stated that it is “crucial countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere.”