CANBERRA, Australia – Refugees rejected by Australia could be resettled in Cambodia this year under a bilateral agreement to be signed Friday that will cost the Australian government more than 10 million Australian dollars ($9 million) a year, a senior minister said.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will sign a memorandum of understanding with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh to resettle an unspecified number of refugees currently held at an Australia-run detention camp on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.
"It should begin later in the year, but we still have some more work to do on the implementation arrangements," Morrison told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview recorded before he left Australia and broadcast Friday. He said Australia had yet to engage resettlement service providers and potentially the International Organization for Migration, the world's leading inter-governmental body on migration.
Under the deal, Australia would pay Cambodia AU$40 million ($35 million) over four years, plus carry the costs of resettlement, Morrison said.
The Cambodian deal is the latest step in Australia's evolving policy of deterring asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australian shores by boat. The government has vowed that no boat arrivals will ever be resettled in Australia.
More than 200 of the 1,200 asylum seekers on Nauru, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, had been assessed to be genuine refugees, Morrison said.
They would be eligible for resettlement in Cambodia, but only if they volunteer to go, Morrison said.
The deal has been condemned by the minor Australian Greens party, which predicts refugees will be pressured to go to Cambodia, where they would face dangers, including exploitation of females.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said refugees would be tempted to choose Cambodia only to escape "horrendous" conditions at Nauru.
"It's like the school bully asking whether you want a punch in the face or a kick in the guts, there's nothing voluntary about this," Sarah-Young told reporters at Parliament House . "It is inhumane, it is dangerous and it's going to put particularly women and girls at extreme risk."
Human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement the deal was "a new low in Australia's deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers."
Australia pays Nauru to house asylum seekers and has a similar deal with Papua New Guinea. Human rights groups have criticized living conditions at the camps.