Raise your glass: refugee rights eroded as Australia and Cambodia sign deal

Last Friday, Cambodian Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Australian Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison clinked champagne glasses upon signing the Memorandum of Understanding (the “MoU”) that confirmed the agreement to transfer refugees under Australia’s care to Cambodia. Naturally, there is reason to celebrate: Australia can offload its humanitarian duty and further entrench its policy of deterrence. Cambodia will pocket $35 million in aid over the next four years, money that will arguably end up in the hands of a corrupt few. As the pair congratulated themselves, the rights of refugees embodied in international law took yet another hit.

To refugees on Nauru, the deal doesn’t conjure sentiments of celebration. Over the weekend they were presented with a video message from Morrison outlining a stark decision: ‘voluntarily’ resettle in Cambodia, or remain on Nauru for a further five years. Either way, it was yet again confirmed that they would never resettle in Australia. For many of the refugees, their pasts have been marked by trauma, and this was the final straw. Five individuals, including four minors, have sown their lips closed in protest, and two others have attempted suicide. They will be passed from a dire situation in Australian detention, which has been deemed harmful by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”), to a dire situation in Cambodia.

The deal has been signed despite longstanding, consistent and widespread criticism. The UNHCR has declared that the deal undermines the basis of the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the “Refugee Convention”), to which both Australia and Cambodia are signatories, by disregarding the need for internationally shared responsibility, and it is therefore concerned with the precedent it sets. Furthermore, human rights groups, civil society organizations, and the Cambodian and Australian public have strongly voiced their concerns. They are concerned that the deal has been cloaked in secrecy, and that Cambodia has a limited capacity to host refugees. Cambodia further faces a host of other human rights issues, and it has treated refugees unfairly in the past.

From the information that has emerged since last Friday, a series of issues have arisen. First, the initial ‘pilot phase’ under which four to five refugees will be resettled in Cambodia reflects that Cambodia is aware of its limited capacity. The pilot program should determine if the deal is an acceptable situation for additional refugees. Instead, questions are raised about who will monitor this phase. If Australia or Cambodia fulfills the task, it will likely result in a prejudiced assessment, under which the welfare of the refugees will not be the prime consideration, and the deal will continue to be closed to public and international scrutiny. This pilot phase therefore may offer little rights protection to refugees.

Second, it has been outlined that once the refugees have learnt basic Khmer, they will be relocated outside of Phnom Penh, mostly to rural areas. This directly violates the Refugee Convention, which determines that “Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory.”

Third, the funding Australia will provide to relocate and settle the refugees in addition to the aid may be insufficient. It is believed the funding will initially include accommodation, language and employment training, business loans, food, clothes, health services and other elements that are later agreed upon. However, the funding will grant access to local services, which in rural Cambodia are often either of a low standard or non-existent. Furthermore, after 12 months of living outside of Phnom Penh, the assistance will be continued only on a case-by-case basis. For refugees who have faced extreme trauma and cannot find meaningful employment, it is unlikely that this time period will be sufficient.

As the world faces an unprecedented refugee crisis, those countries that are most capable, such as Australia, should be shouldering their responsibility to provide a dignified resettlement process. Instead, 87% of the world’s refugees are currently located in developing countries.

Refugees fall through the cracks of the state-centric global order, rendering them some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals. Yet the refugee deal between Cambodia and Australia fundamentally undermines the protections and rights that refugees are entitled to, and allows a wealthy country to dump its responsibilities on one of the poorest. It is fundamental that this deal be reconsidered to fully align with international law, and be opened to meaningful public and international scrutiny. Quite simply, this deal is without moral or legal justification.

Sami Shearman, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.

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