Home Civil Society Voices 2014 Civil Society Voices Australia’s refugee resettlement deal with Cambodia side-steps its obligations

Australia’s refugee resettlement deal with Cambodia side-steps its obligations

Sydney World Refugee Day march - Photograph: Peter Boyle

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The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network condemns the Australian government for pressuring refugees seeking asylum in Australia to resettle in a third country.

Sydney World Refugee Day march - Photograph: Peter Boyle
Sydney World Refugee Day march – Photograph: Peter Boyle

On 26 September 2014, the Australian and Cambodian governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) relating to the settlement of refugees in Cambodia.

The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network condemns the Australian government for disregarding its obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees by pressuring refugees seeking asylum and protection from Australia to resettle in a third country that may not be adequately equipped to provide sufficient levels of protection and for its attempt to push refugees back to their country of origin, denying them peace, safety and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

Although the MoU stipulates that selected recognised refugees currently being held in detention centres on the island of Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea) will be offered voluntary resettlement in line with Cambodian domestic legislation, such legislation does not provide adequate protection to refugees. While the number of refugees and the timing of resettlement will be determined by the Cambodian Government, the operational guidelines of the MoU stipulate that after one year “Australia will help facilitate the process of voluntary repatriation of the refugees.”

Australia must be criticised for their deliberate attempt to shirk their responsibility towards fulfilling their international obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugees, who arrive by boat, are seeking protection from Australia. In response, they are transferred to Nauru for assessment of their protection claims in offshore processing facilities. Unless refugees can be sustainably settled in Nauru in a way that guarantees them adequate protections, the obligation to protect falls to Australia.

Given that Australia has a clear capacity to integrate those who seek its protection in Australia, it is an improper use of resettlement to devolve that responsibility to yet another country. This is not an attempt to share responsibility in the region, but an instrument of deterrence for those planning to go to Australia and a punitive measure against those who have actually done so.

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Facilities at these detention centres have been condemned by many international human rights organisations for failing to meet basic standards.

Many arriving by boat will subsequently be transferred to Cambodia, a country that already faces significant challenges in protecting the human rights of its own citizens.

As a member of the international community, Australia has a responsibility to honour its obligations under both customary international law and the international treaties to which it is a party. It should not push these refugees to a third country.

The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network also criticises the Cambodian government for accepting the deal. Whilst Cambodia is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it suffers economically with at least 18 per cent of its population living below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day. Moreover, Cambodia has yet to overcome the legacy of its turbulent history. It suffers poor levels of overall nutrition and the Cambodia government is struggling to adequately serve the needs of its own citizens.

The secrecy around the real, practical steps by which the two countries intend to relocate and receive refugees is cause for alarm.

First, Cambodia struggles to provide adequate services to existing refugees in Cambodia, and sound mechanisms need to be in place first before accepting new refugees.

Second, Cambodia will struggle with this influx of new refugees in a number of ways. For example, Cambodia does not possess interpreters for such a refugee population, a problem which will make navigating the new host society exceedingly difficult for new arrivals. Cambodia’s medical facilities and medical staff are not prepared or trained to provide care to foreigners across complex language and cultural barriers. Cambodia’s labour market is not sufficiently robust to integrate non-native speakers, even into low-wage factory jobs. Although Cambodia’s public education system is in general open to non-citizens, processing enrolment forms will put an unprecedented strain on the Refugee Department of the Ministry of Interior given the potential lack of identification documents (such as birth certificates).

While Cambodia’s tolerant religious climate is welcoming of faith traditions, the experience of current refugee groups indicates that different strands of Islam often create conflict amongst otherwise peaceful neighbours. Cambodian news and social media are already alight with conspiracy theories about this bilateral agreement, raising disingenuous though palpable xenophobia before the first arrivals even set foot on Cambodian territory.

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These and many other challenges demand a public action plan on the part of both the Australian and Cambodian governments to ensure the international community that safe and legitimate steps are in place to protect the well-being and dignity of those individuals caught up in this movement of peoples. Such conditions will be significant hurdles for the protection of already vulnerable people.

Additionally, Cambodia struggles to establish clear policies and processes on nationality and birth registration, which may put refugees, and children born to refugees, at risk of becoming stateless.

In addition to concerns regarding the protection space in Cambodia, there are concerns that Australia’s pledge of financial aid will be insufficient or problematic. As part of this deal, the Australian Government has pledged A$40m in the form of Official Development Assistance. As a country that is ranked 160 (highly corrupt) on Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index 2013, there is little hope that this money will reach the intended beneficiaries.

Lastly, while the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network encourages Cambodia to realise its commitment to increasing protection spaces for refugees in the region and welcomes its desire to support refugees and asylum seekers, civil society groups concerned with refugees in Cambodia already face great challenges to meet the needs of those people who have directly sought asylum within its territory, and as such are under-resourced and therefore oppose assisting Australia to circumvent its obligations under international treaties and customary international law.

Australia is positioned as number two on the Human Development Index and has a world class settlement sector supporting the humanitarian programme. Instead, this deal is but a further action by Australia to seriously undermine efforts in the Asia-Pacific region to improve the protection of people fleeing their countries of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

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The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network:

  • urges the Australian Government to desist its continued violation of the intent and spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol;
  • condemns Australia for utilising its financial clout to pressure poorer nations to take on protection obligations which belong to Australia;
  • reiterates Australia’s international obligations to provide protection to refugees entering its territory or jurisdiction regardless of their mode of travel;
  • urges the development of regional processes which are inclusive and collaborative and which have refugee and asylum seeker protection as the central core for engagement in line with international human rights law and treaties;
  • urges Cambodia to develop robust protection and welfare mechanisms for all refugees and asylum seekers and stateless persons who are on its territory;
  • urges Australia to engage in multilateral action to address the root causes of forced displacement combined with collective efforts to prevent and resolve protracted refugee situations, which will significantly reduce the need for vulnerable people to make onward movements in search of protection;
  • stands ready to collaborate with States and other actors to strengthen and build infrastructure for increased refugee protection throughout the region; and
  • envisages a region wherein refugees and asylum seekers

– enjoy legal protection under domestic and international law;
– enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights;
– enjoy their right to the highest attainable standard of health and enjoy access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate   quality, including preventive care and mental health services;
– Enjoy the right to work, social security and access to livelihoods, enabling them to be independent, self-reliant, and active members of society;
– Enjoy their right to education, with safe and relevant learning opportunities made accessible to all learners, regardless of their age, gender or abilities; and
– Have safe and adequate access to food, water, sanitation, nutrition and shelter, provided in a way that provides choice and promotes human dignity.


While APRRN statements are prepared in consultation with APRRN members, they do not necessarily reflect the views of all APRRN members.

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