Cambodia to accept first Australia deal asylum-seekers

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia said on Thursday that it has agreed to take its first batch of asylum seekers from Australian custody as part of a controversial deal between the countries that triggered widespread international criticism.

Four refugees held by Australia on the remote Pacific island of Nauru will soon be transferred to the impoverished South-east Asian nation, Cambodia's interior ministry said.

"The four refugees have filled in the voluntary applications," Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the ministry, told AFP.

"Then the Ministry of Interior asked the government to have the four refugees resettle permanently in Cambodia and the head of the government (Prime Minister Hun Sen) approved this request yesterday," he added.

The refugees include a Rohingya man from Myanmar, two Iranian men and one Iranian woman, all of whom were granted refugee status on Nauru and had agreed to be moved, Khieu Sopheak added.

No date has been set for their arrival.

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.

Canberra signed a deal with Phnom Penh in September to allow those granted refugee status in Nauru to permanently resettle in Cambodia, one of the poorest nations in South-east Asia.

The UN 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.