Cambodia admits first asylum seekers under widely criticised deal with Australia

A refugee (third from right) held under Australian custody is escorted by Cambodian police following his arrival at the Phnom Penh International airport on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
A refugee (third from right) held under Australian custody is escorted by Cambodian police following his arrival at the Phnom Penh International airport on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia received its first batch of asylum-seekers from Australian custody on Thursday as part of a widely-criticised deal between the two countries.  

The refugees – three Iranians and one ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar – were flown into Phnom Penh, the capital of one of South-east Asia’s poorest nations with a weak record for upholding human rights.

“They have arrived now, and we already handed them to the IOM,” Chhay Bonna, the airport’s chief immigration officer told AFP, referring to the International Organisation for Migration which is tasked with helping the four settle into their new home.

The refugees, three men and one woman, were greeted by Cambodian immigration officials and representatives from Australia’s embassy at the VIP section of Phnom Penh’s airport, an AFP reporter on the scene said.

In a statement, the IOM said the group were being taken to temporary accommodation in the Cambodian capital where they would undergo language training as well as “cultural and social orientation”.

“They’re here, they’re healthy and we ask for privacy for them,” IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry told AFP.  

Under Canberra’s hardline immigration policy, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are denied resettlement in Australia and sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, even if they are genuine refugees.  

The deal was inked last September to allow those granted refugee status in Nauru to permanently resettle in Cambodia.  Under the agreement, Cambodia will accept Australia’s unwanted refugees in return for millions of dollars of aid over the next four years. Canberra will cover all direct costs of the settlement arrangement.

The UN has condemned the deal, while refugee advocates said asylum seekers do not want to be sent to Cambodia.  Cambodia has also been criticised for its own record of helping refugees, including Vietnamese Montagnards who are often deported.

The mainly Christian ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands have crossed the border to Cambodia in recent years to escape discrimination.

Rights groups hit out on Thursday at the move to ship the first set of refugees to Cambodia under the deal with Australia.

“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society,” Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch said.  “These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”

In a statement, Amnesty International Australia said Cambodia’s track record of protecting asylum seekers was “poor” and called on Canberra to “cease the transfer of asylum seekers and refugees to third countries where they are not adequately protected from human rights abuses”.

 A spokesman for the Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he would not be commenting on the transfer.  

The arrival of the four refugees in Cambodia comes as South-east Asia struggles to handle a migrant crisis that has seen boatloads of persecuted Rohingya migrants and poor Bangladeshis arrive in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.