Refugees from Nauru Island are surrounded by Cambodian police officers as they arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport on June 4, 2015.  

© 2015 Reuters

(Sydney) – Australia should withdraw plans to send refugees from Nauru to Cambodia in the face of continuing abuses against those already in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia should reject its deal with Australia and focus on providing proper protections to the refugees and asylum seekers already on its soil.

“The Australian government is trying to pay Cambodia to take some refugees off its hands and its conscience,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “This isn’t a solution, but rather a business deal at the expense of some very vulnerable people.”

The media is reporting that Australia is planning the first flight of refugees from Nauru to Cambodia under a September 2014 deal between Canberra and Phnom Penh. Under this deal, Cambodia would receive a US$35 million increase in Australian development assistance. These funds are in addition to the payment by Australia of all the costs related to moving people from the island of Nauru, where they are currently housed, to Cambodia.

Australian authorities have promised refugees and some asylum seekers in Nauru – where conditions are poor and reportedly abusive – a resettlement package in Cambodia. They have distributed a leaflet presenting a misleadingly glowing socioeconomic, political, and human rights picture of Cambodia that contradicts warnings issued by the Australian government to its own citizens and reporting by human rights groups and the media.

With recognized refugees on Nauru refusing to go to Cambodia, Australia has been persuading asylum seekers to go with offers of fast-track determination that they are refugees, plus financial rewards, according to media reports.

In addition to misrepresenting life in Cambodia, the leaflet distributed on Nauru ignores the Cambodian government’s dismal treatment of asylum seekers and refugees who are currently in the country. Human Rights Watch reported in November 2014 on the Cambodian government’s failure to provide recognized refugees with the appropriate legal status as well as official discrimination and hostility toward immigrants from the developing world. Refugees in Cambodia also experience high levels of poverty and insecurity, along with the same kinds of human rights violations committed against its own citizens. Legal barriers persist for refugees to obtain official government identification and open bank accounts.

“Australia has already offered what is effectively a bribe to Cambodia to take refugees, and now there are reports that it is effectively doing the same with desperate asylum seekers in Nauru,” Pearson said. “This would be the Abbott government’s latest attempt to offload all responsibility for people who have fled war, ethnic cleansing, and atrocities.”

Under a September 2014 memorandum of understanding between Australia and Cambodia, Cambodia agreed to “provide safe and permanent settlement opportunities for refugees from the Republic of Nauru … and demonstrate the importance of regional cooperation on refugees’ settlement in accordance with the Refugees Convention.”

The recent Cambodian government treatment of mostly Christian ethnic Jarai asylum seekers (also known as Montagnards) from Vietnam, where they claim they are targets of religious and political persecution, calls into question Cambodia’s good faith in undertaking such obligations. In December 2014 the Cambodian government allowed 13 Jarai from Vietnam claiming persecution by Vietnamese authorities to register in Phnom Penh as asylum-seekers and subsequently recognized them as refugees. But the government has refused to allow some 94 other Jarai asylum seekers even to register to seek a determination whether they also qualify as refugees. It has deported some 54 of these asylum seekers to Vietnam. It has now deployed a mixed force of police, gendarmes, and army troops to Cambodia’s border with Vietnam to prevent more Montagnards from crossing into Cambodia to seek asylum.

Cambodia is also seeking third-country resettlement for the 13 Jarai that it recognized as refugees, which suggests that the government itself has concerns about its capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society.

“Cambodia’s search for a new home for Jarai refugees may be evidence enough that it’s not able or willing to integrate refugees from Nauru,” Pearson said. “The Cambodian government should focus on providing effective protection and assistance to refugees already living there and ensuring asylum seekers enjoy their rights under international law.”