A novel (and odd) solution: Australia hard-sells Cambodia to asylum seekers it doesn't want

Still haunted by the Vietnam War next door and the 1970s genocide that followed, Cambodia is not exactly the place that the world's refugees dream of reaching.

Plagued by poverty, corruption and human rights abuses, it has been run by a strongman prime minister who has held power for 30 years. It's a nation where medical care outside main cities is nonexistent, where decent jobs are so scarce that more than 800,000 of its own people have left to find work abroad.

Yet when it comes to 700 asylum seekers detained on the remote Pacific Island nation of Nauru, Australia is hard-selling Cambodia as something unexpected: their new promised land of opportunity.

In a video message aired this week to asylum seekers on Nauru, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton — whose nation has said it will never take the migrants — touted Cambodia as "a fast-paced and vibrant country with a stable economy and varied employment opportunities ... a diverse nation with a blend of many nationalities, cultures and religions."

"An opportunity for a new life is now before you," Dutton said. "While it's not Australia, Cambodia offers you safety, security and opportunity."

Two recent shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea that killed as many as 1,300 people have thrown a new spotlight on the global movement of asylum seekers and migrants seeking a better life, and the struggle by other, often wealthier nations to push them back.

The 700 asylum seekers on Nauru, many from as far away as Iran, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have been stuck there since 2013. Australia funds a detention center there similar to another on Papua New Guinea that temporarily houses intercepted migrants who attempted dangerous journeys across the open sea.

In a bid to settle their fates, Australia offered Cambodia US$31 million to take the refugees in deal agreed last year. Critics say the country is extraordinarily ill-equipped to host refugees, and they accuse Australia of exploiting poorer nations in a bid to rid itself of unwanted migrants.

"Australia is basically paying blood money to a much poorer, less developed state with a shoddy record of refugee protection to take people that Canberra doesn't want," said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

"When they get there, the refugees will find huge hurdles to integrate, jobs that are few and far between, and a resentful local population wondering why this group should get a time-limited year of Australian assistance when ordinary Cambodians do not," Robertson said.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled Cambodia in the 1970s, when the country was bombed by American forces during the Vietnam War, then ruled by the fanatical Khmer Rouge, an ultra-communist movement that oversaw the death of about 2 million people before being ousted by Vietnamese forces.

Australia says it is a generous supporter of refugees and is working hard to find durable solutions to the crisis. In a letter to his country's Parliament last year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen defended his government's decision to take in those on Nauru, calling it a "humanitarian" gesture. He said Cambodia is already home to refugees — just 85 to be exact — from countries including Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Congo and Somalia.

Son Chhay, a Cambodian lawmaker, said Hun Sen's humanitarian claim was disingenuous. He cited the fact that Cambodia has deported Vietnamese and Chinese minorities over the last decade, and questioned why it would now take in "unwanted refugees from Australia" instead.

In March, Cambodian police hunted down 42 Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam and forced them home, Robertson said. The Montagnard are an ethnic minority; many of them sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War and attend Protestant churches not recognized by the government.

So far, Cambodia says only one person on Nauru has taken up the resettlement offer — an ethnic Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar, two countries away.

Kem Sarin, who heads the refugee office at Cambodia's Interior Ministry, said the case was under review and there is no word on when the man might arrive in Phnom Penh.

Dutton told Sky News television on Tuesday that "ringleaders" among the Nauru refugees "have been telling their fellow travelers there not to accept the deal and they are being spurred on by refugee advocates in Australia." Such actions, he says, are "prolonging the difficulties for these people" because it is futile for them to hold onto hope of ever reaching Australia.

An Australian fact sheet endorsing Cambodia was distributed on Nauru this month. It promised free health insurance and cash, and described Cambodia as a place where people "enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech."

The handout fails to mention that Cambodia's government has a history of brutally cracking down on dissent, most recently against opponents who accused the ruling party of rigging 2013 elections.

It also appears at odds with Australia's own travel advisory for Cambodia, which warns of the potential for violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators, says robberies occur frequently and cautions that medical care "may be limited or non-existent" in some places while infectious diseases like dengue fever and typhoid are common.

"The reality is that refugees under Australia's care who are sent to Cambodia are likely in the long term to lead lives of danger, destitution and despair on the margins," said David Manne, a human rights lawyer who is executive director of Australia's Refugee and Immigration Legal Center. Cambodia, he said, "can barely look after the needs and safety of its own population, let alone those of refugees."

Theary Seng, a Phnom Penh-based lawyer, expressed similar sentiments. When it comes to statistics for human development, corruption, education, social welfare and security, "Cambodia ranks at the very bottom tier," he said.

"These refugees," he said, "will be dumped into a sea of human-rights abuses."


Associated Press writers Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.