Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison smiles next to Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sar Kheng after a signing ceremony between Cambodia and Australia relating to the settlement of refugees, at the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh September 26, 2014.

(Sydney) –The Australian government should press Cambodian authorities to implement key reforms to improve treatment of refugees in Cambodia before transferring any refugees from Nauru, Human Rights Watch said today.

In new Human Rights Watch interviews, asylum seekers and refugees living in Cambodia described hardships as a result of the Cambodian government’s failure to process regular nationality documents and due to poor economic conditions in the country. These include: difficulties in obtaining employment, denial of access to education, substandard access to health services, extortion and corruption by local authorities, and discrimination by officials and the public. Refugees said fear of mistreatment by the authorities kept them from speaking out or joining organizations to bring complaints.

In September 2014, Australia and Cambodia signed a Memorandum of Understanding whereby refugees will be voluntarily transferred from Nauru to Cambodia. The Australian government will fund temporary accommodation and resettlement services for the refugees for at least one year, and then on a case-by-case basis, and health insurance will be provided for five years. The Australian government also committed to provide an additional A$40 million (US$35 million) over four years in development assistance for other projects in Cambodia as part of the bilateral refugee resettlement agreement. 

“The Australian government shouldn’t make the refugees in Nauru suffer further by dumping them in a place unable to adequately resettle or reintegrate them,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Cambodia should fix its faulty refugee protection and support services frameworks before accepting any refugees from Nauru, and the Australian government should insist on that.”

In November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Cambodia, and consulted with refugee and migrant support organizations, human rights groups, and United Nations agencies. Most of these refugees and asylum seekers requested Human Rights Watch to withhold their names and nationalities for fear of retribution.

Cambodia took over issuing refugee status determinations from UNHCR in 2009, and currently hosts 63 refugees. Under Cambodia’s Sub-Decree No. 224 of 2009 on Procedures for Recognition as a Refugee or Providing Asylum Rights to Foreigners in the Kingdom of Cambodia, the government should issue residency cards and ensure refugees have the same legal rights as legal immigrants.

“Human Rights Watch has discovered that five years on, not a single refugee has ever received a Cambodian residence card, let alone citizenship,” Pearson said. 

Citizenship in Cambodia requires prior possession of a residence card in order to go through the naturalization process. Instead, refugees are issued a prakas, or proclamation, by the Ministry of Interior that confirms their right to stay in Cambodia, but cannot be used for the many official purposes that require presentation of an ID card or travel document.  

Refugees have not received international travel documents and generally lack other basic personal documentation, such as family books, which officially specify the membership of families with local authorities, and are necessary to live a normal life in Cambodia.

“This piece of paper [prakas] is absolutely useless,” a refugee told Human Rights Watch. “To get a job, a driver’s license, open a bank account, buy a motorbike, or even receive a wire transfer, you need to show a passport, not this piece of paper.”

Cambodia’s agreement with Australia also states that refugees will be issued with the prakas as well as refugee resident cards and ID cards in accordance with Sub-Decree No. 224. But so far, current refugees in Cambodian have been denied those documents. The agreement further obliges Cambodia to provide international travel documents, but based on the experience of implementing its own sub-decree, this seems unlikely.

“After five years Cambodia can’t even follow its own law on refugees, so Australia is, at best, naive to believe this deal will be any different,” Pearson said. “The Australian government only has to look at Cambodia’s poor human rights record to be wary of its commitments to protect refugees.”

Research Findings, Memorandum of Understanding, Statements, and Recommendations

The refugees who spoke to Human Rights Watch all experienced difficulties finding employment, citing as barriers the lack of residency or other identity documents, discrimination, low wages, and lack of Khmer language skills. “I tried to find jobs as a laborer, in hotels and restaurants, but no one would hire me because I don’t have proper papers,” a refugee said. Another refugee spoke of how a nongovernmental organization helped him learn baking skills and tried to help him acquire a job at a bakery. However, the pay was so low that it did not cover the costs of rent and transport. “The job paid $80 per month. But I pay $50 for rent and I live out of town so I would have to get transport there every day, which would have left not enough money for any food.”

Several asylum seekers and refugees described how Cambodian authorities frequently extorted money from them. One refugee said “I had my bike stolen, but I did not report it. The police ask for $10 to make a police report, and I don’t have $10.” A refugee said, “I go to work, I come home and sleep. If I’m riding my motorbike, the police will stop me and ask for $5 because I don’t have a license. I never go outside more than I have to because I don’t have enough money to pay off the cops.”

Vietnamese migrants are a particularly vulnerable population in Cambodia. Cambodian and international human rights advocates told Human Rights Watch that many Vietnamese live in fear of Cambodian or Vietnamese authorities apprehending them and sending them back to Vietnam. Because of their extreme insecurity, no Vietnamese refugee or asylum-seeker agreed to be interviewed by Human Rights Watch. However, groups assisting Vietnamese communities confirmed that Vietnamese lacking proper ID documents commonly faced extortion and bribery from local authorities.

Refugees told Human Rights Watch that they were targets of discrimination in Cambodia and described how they often paid inflated prices for food, work equipment, and basic necessities because they were not Cambodian. “There is a foreigner price and a local price,” said a refugee. “But we can’t afford the foreigner price.” A Sri Lankan refugee said that people called him a terrorist and used offensive words because he is an ethnic Tamil.

Dire Financial Situation
Asylum seekers and refugees said they worried most about their financial situation. This included refugees who have lived in Cambodia for several years. “The only reason I can stay alive is because JRS [Jesuit Refugee Service] helps me by loaning me money,” said a refugee said. “But I struggle to survive here.” A refugee who had passed through Thailand on the way to Cambodia said, “I had a much better life in Thailand except for the documentation. I would much prefer to stay there than Cambodia. Here it is expensive and I can’t earn much.” The same refugee gave this advice to refugees on Nauru: “This is a corrupt country. You will not find jobs. We have been here more than two years and we have no money and not enough to eat. It’s better to wait in Nauru. It is a very, very bad life here in Cambodia. There is no future. We can survive, but that’s all.”

Freedom of Expression
Refugees said they are afraid to complain to the authorities about any mistreatment they suffered. One refugee told Human Rights Watch: “If asylum seekers or refugees were to protest anything about the way in which they are being treated, they are taking a big risk, because there is really no guarantee the authorities would not simply tear up the asylum seeker document or refugee document and the protester would be deported.”   

A refugee who had participated in an ASEAN civil society conference when his asylum claim was under consideration, said that following the meeting, Cambodian authorities put him under surveillance. “Police followed me home and then followed me around for several days,” he said. “I was questioned and told by immigration officials that this was a warning and I should stay away from politics or it will have a negative impact on my asylum application. I was scared.”

Under Cambodian law, all children have the right to go to school for at least nine years free of charge. School authorities have refused to allow many refugee children, lacking residency or other basic personal identity documents, to attend state schools. Some organizations working with stateless people said that teachers also sometimes expected bribes to accept foreign children in state schools. Even Cambodian students have had to pay bribes to top up teachers’ pay in Cambodian schools.

The Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Cambodia states that health insurance provided to those transferred from Nauru should be “commensurate with local community standards.” The current health insurance plan afforded to refugees is equivalent to what many Cambodians have, yet it is inadequate, and has many exemptions. For instance, dental care, various optical conditions and many chronic illnesses requiring treatment lasting more than three months are generally not covered. Certain routine preventative medicine treatments, such as vaccinations, are also exempt. Health facilities are few in Cambodia and are often located far from where refugees live. As a result, refugees said they often pay for medical care out of their own meager wages or had to have money wired to them from their families or friends overseas because the health insurance is so inadequate.

One refugee said, “I had to wait more than two months for medication for my skin disorder. By the time the medicine came, the drugs had already expired.”

Mental health services are sorely lacking in Cambodia with no government agency providing such care. Only a few nongovernmental organizations provide mental health services. For refugees from Nauru who have faced multiple traumas as a result of persecution in their home countries, perilous sea journeys, and lengthy periods in detention on Nauru, mental health services may be a priority.

Memorandum of Understanding
The agreement between Australia and Cambodia provides that resettlement services will be provided outside Phnom Penh after an unspecified period of temporary accommodation in the capital. The experience of asylum seekers and refugees currently living in Cambodia suggests that many new refugees will require years of financial and social assistance. Given the experiences of groups the government has moved out of Phnom Penh, this policy risks creating pockets of destitute foreigners stuck in remote areas with substandard conditions.

Although the agreement has some safeguards, such as stating refugees will not be detained, the Cambodian government’s record on this score, as discussed below, is not good.

Services Outside Phnom Penh
The Memorandum of Understanding states that after one year, services will be provided at a location outside Phnom Penh. This will essentially force refugees to move away from the country’s one urban center, with a large international presence, creating hardship and resettlement difficulties. The Cambodian government has a track record of dumping “undesirables” – homeless, alleged drug users, street children – in remote locations without adequate services. For instance, in 2009 the authorities forcibly relocated HIV-affected families living in Borei Keila, a housing development in Phnom Penh, to substandard housing at Tuol Sambo, a remote site 25 kilometers from the city. The families were resettled into crude, green metal sheds that are baking hot in the daytime and lack running water and adequate sanitation.

Risk of Arbitrary Detention
The Memorandum of Understanding states that refugees will not be detained, but will be provided “temporary accommodation” with necessary “security” prior to being resettled. However, previous agreements by the Cambodian government not to detain people have been ignored. For instance, the government claimed that homeless and other people staying at a center in Prey Speu, outside Phnom Penh, did so on a voluntarily basis, and cited an August 2008 directive by the Social Affairs Minister forbidding involuntary detention at such locations. However, Human Rights Watch found that between July 2009 and June 2010, at least 20 sex workers were detained at Prey Speu against their will for up to a month. Human rights monitors in November 2014 told Human Rights Watch that such practices continue at Prey Speu and elsewhere in the country.

Sub-Decree No. 224
The Memorandum of Understanding refers to Sub-Decree No. 224. The sub-decree fails to incorporate the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not provide sufficient procedural protections to prevent refoulement (unlawful return of someone to persecution), and does not fulfil Cambodia’s other obligations as a party to the treaty. Combined with various exclusion and cessation clauses, the sub-decree provides Cambodian authorities numerous and overlapping bases for refusal of refugee status or removal, with insufficient safeguards to protect against the wrongful removal of people with protection concerns. This will allow Cambodian officials great leeway to reject and expel asylum seekers, with insufficient procedural protections in place to prevent refoulement.

Statements From Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Cambodia

On Residency Status:
“As for documents, I only have this one from the Ministry of Interior, no ID card or family book. So I have trouble doing things like opening a bank account, receiving a wire transfer, owning a motorbike, or even getting a SIM [cell phone] card, nor can I own or operate a business or get married.”

On Extortion:
“We have to pay bribes just to be able to sell food [self-employed bread seller]. Cambodians also face this problem.”

“In their dealings with me, the Cambodian authorities have been greedy and not always civil. Immigration sometimes accused me of playing games with them, of being a criminal trying to beat the system.”

On Discrimination:
“The main problem in Cambodia is discrimination and mistreatment based on financial status, but it is also worse if you are refugee with the wrong skin color and not the right religion. Money will buy you everything, but if you haven’t got money, then you can’t protect yourself and can’t protest about discrimination and mistreatment.”   

On Freedom of Expression:
“I keep my head down. I stay away from any protests because I don’t want it to cause problems for me.”

“We believe that because the Cambodian government doesn’t respect the rights of Cambodians, it also will not respect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. We know from the newspapers that the government threatens those who complain about their rights being violated, and that makes us afraid. All these recent arrests make us feel we cannot do or say anything that might make the authorities angry at us.”

“So, although someone with refugee status might be able to live safely forever in Cambodia, they are safe only if they keep their mouths shut and don’t do anything the authorities would consider trouble. Our low living standards are not just a problem for everyday life, but because of the fact that in Cambodia, everything depends on money. If you have money, you can buy anything, but without it, you can’t have what you are supposed to have as a right, which means you don’t have the rights of an asylum seeker or a refugee.”  

Australia should ensure the following recommendations are in effect before transferring refugees from Nauru to Cambodia. In the meantime, Australia should support “regional burden-sharing” by accepting refugees from Nauru for resettlement.

Human Rights Watch urges the Australian government to:

  • Press the Cambodian government to immediately provide all recognized refugees in Cambodia with ordinary Cambodian residency and other common identity documents;
  • Establish a transparent monitoring mechanism for both Nauru transferees and existing refugees in Cambodia;
  • Establish a clear and simple process for refugees to be able to report abuses safely and confidentially;
  • Lift the requirement in the Memorandum of Understanding that refugees transferred from Nauru must accept settlement services outside Phnom Penh;
  • Provide more details about the extent of health services, including mental health services, education and other social services, to be provided to refugees under the agreement; and
  • Raise concerns publicly and privately about Cambodia’s human rights record.

Human Rights Watch urges the Cambodian government to:

  • Immediately issue residency and other common identity documents to recognized refugees;
  • Lift the requirement in the Memorandum of Understanding that refugees transferred from Nauru must accept settlement services outside Phnom Penh;
  • Work with relevant UN agencies and nongovernmental agencies to establish a monitoring mechanism that will assess and help solve problems facing refugees; and
  • Provide more details about the extent of health services, including mental health services, education, and other social services, to be provided to refugees under the agreement.