"It's not about whether they are poor, it’s about whether they can be safe," Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in defence of Australia’s plan to resettle refugees currently housed on Nauru to Cambodia. It appears Cambodia and Australia are in the final stages of signing such an agreement.
But is Cambodia a safe place for refugees?
Not if you’re from China. In 2009, under pressure from China, Cambodia forcibly deported 20 ethnic Uighurs back to China. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had already issued “persons of concern” letters to the Uighurs — most had fled China for Cambodia after July 2009 protests in Urumqi that the Chinese authorities brutally suppressed. We know some of those returned to China have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Not if you’re from Vietnam. Human Rights Watch has long reported on the forced return of Khmer Krom activist monks straight into the hands of Vietnamese security services. Cambodian authorities have used the threat of forced return to Vietnam to stamp out any activist activities, preventing monks from forming, joining or meeting with local Khmer Krom groups, distributing bulletins, or participating in protests.
Cambodia is not particularly safe if you’re Cambodian. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are under regular attack, while corruption is rampant. Let’s hope no resettled refugees end up in Cambodia's courts, where matters are decided by bribes and political influence, not law and facts. Decades of authoritarian rule under Prime Minister Hun Sen have empowered Cambodian security forces to commit abuses such as killings, torture, and arbitrary detention with impunity. Those especially vulnerable include government critics, activists, journalists and those living on the margins.
Human Rights Watch has documented  the arbitrary arrest, detention and mistreatment of “undesirables” housed in squalid detention centres run by the Ministry of Social Welfare, where beatings and rapes by guards go unpunished.
These incidents raise serious questions about how refugees sent to Cambodia will be treated. Where will they be housed, and which Cambodian ministry will be responsible for their care and integration? Will they enjoy the freedom to live where they please, pursue education and find jobs? How long before the authorities might consider them “undesirables” as well?
These are among a long list of questions that the Australian government has avoided, stonewalling on the specifics of what the agreement will entail.
Another key question is what has been offered to Cambodia in return for agreeing to resettle refugees? Cambodian officials deny being offered money, though it is hard to believe there will be no economic benefit to Cambodia.
When Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made recent visits to Cambodia, they failed to speak publicly about the serious human rights concerns there.
Australia sold out human rights in Sri Lanka, appeasing the Rajapaksa regime and protecting it from international criticism rather than trying to protect Sri Lankans from abuses by their government. Ostensibly, this was in order to “stop the boats” of Sri Lankans coming to Australia, and ensure Sri Lanka’s cooperation in sending Sri Lankans back home.
We should not make the same shameful mistake with Cambodia. Hun Sen may have maintained a grip on power for decades, but opposition is growing. Australia should not discount the voice of the opposition which has strongly condemned using Cambodia for Australia’s refugees.
Cambodia is one of the few Asian countries that is a party to the Refugee Convention. Yet it has long made a mockery of its refugee commitments.
Australia should help Cambodia become a rights-respecting, safe and stable place — but the best way is by holding the government to account for its abuses while providing capacity-building assistance.
Australia also needs to stop setting a bad model for the region by shirking its own obligations. What incentive is there for others in Asia and the Pacific to ratify the Refugee Convention when they see Australia and Cambodia render signatures meaningless through their actions?
Australia’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for months on end with no long-term prospects has been bad enough. When detainees are considering “voluntary returns” to war-torn Syria, then we know how limited their options are.
The suffering currently occurring on Manus and Nauru require alternative solutions but sending people to Cambodia is not one of them. Rather, Australia needs to return to the long-standing principle that refugees are deserving of a durable solution. We should take the responsibility to examine asylum seekers’ claims, return those found not to be in need of protection, and integrate refugees who cannot return to their home countries. Australia, not Cambodia, has the capacity to restore their rights and enable them to become productive and self-sustaining contributors to their host country.