Today – 20 June 2014 – is World Refugee Day. Around the world, people are raising awareness about the plight of millions of people who have been displaced by war, persecution, abuse, and fear. Yet, despite international law which requires countries to protect refugees and asylum seekers, the international community continues to fail to protect the human rights of these people. Here in Cambodia, an unwelcome agreement with Australia is threatening to erode international law and to affect the fundamental rights of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers.
February 2014: The Australian press reveals negotiations between the Australian and Cambodian governments. A Memorandum of Understanding has been drafted, under which hundreds of people who had initially sought asylum in Australia may be sent to Cambodia. Details of the agreement have been kept secret, but the media mentions that it could affect up to 2,500 people. The Cambodian government repeats that the people concerned by the agreement will be coming to Cambodia on a volunteer basis. Still, can such a choice be freely made, as Australia has made it clear that those people will never be admitted on its soil?
The refugees and asylum seekers in question are those whom Australia shuts far away from its borders, in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, which according to Amnesty International, amounts to arbitrary detention and illegal expulsion of asylum seekers. In Manus, poor living conditions led to violent protests, one death, and about sixty persons injured in February. Australia is certainly ill-at-ease with these shameful events. Sadly, it has decided to replace one illegal option with another.
The media are putting forward the rumors about a 40 millions dollars “compensation” to Cambodia; this would be quite a powerful persuasion for a nation where more than 40% of the people live on 2 dollars a day. Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Nam Hong admitted that Australia will determine the number of refugees to be sent to Cambodia. This statement shows the lack of interest for Cambodia’s actual capacity to offer these people decent living conditions.
Let’s keep in mind that currently, there are 68 refugees in Cambodia; these people have not been given work permits and thus are unable to make a living in their new home. Furthermore, Cambodia’s track record on the protection of asylum seekers is frightening: in 2009, it forcibly returned to China a group of 20 Uighur asylum seekers, including a pregnant woman and two children. Finally, considering the level of corruption, there are concerns that Australian financial support might be diverted into the pockets of Cambodia’s leaders rather than used for programs to support the newly arrived asylum seekers.
3 years after the Australian High Court ruled against sending asylum seekers to Malaysia because Malaysia was deemed unable to provide protection to asylum seekers, Australia is again trying to send vulnerable people to a country which fails to protect the human rights of its own citizens. Resettlement to a third country is meant to be an option only when the country of destination is unable (for material or security reasons) to provide for the refugees on its grounds. What should be a matter of international solidarity here has instead become refugee dumping.
A number of questions about this agreement between Australia and Cambodia remain: will the people in question arrive in Cambodia as asylum seekers – to have their asylum claims determined by the Cambodian judiciary – or as refugees? How many people exactly will be sent to Cambodia? And what resources will both Australia and Cambodia devote to ensure that resettlement is undertaken in a way that respects international laws and standards?
Four months after the agreement was first made public, it is time for both governments to ensure that any deal made is done so transparently and with the input of relevant stakeholders. The international community must put pressure on both governments to ensure that this happens. Allowing such a deal to take place is a threat to refugees’ rights around the world.
Valentine Gavard, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.
If you are in Australia, you can take action on this issue through Amnesty International Australia.