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 beendeemed harmful by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”), to a dire situation in Cambodia.
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.
Since the beginning of June, Cambodian migrant workers have been fleeing from Thailand back to Cambodia, through the border crossing at Poipet, due to fears of an alleged crackdown by the Thai military junta on undocumented migrant workers. Since the mass exodus began, an estimated 122,000 Cambodians have already returned to Cambodia.
Information and details remain unclear. Although the Thai junta announced earlier this week that arrests of illegal workers in the country and deportations would occur, they vehemently deny claims of violence and a mass crackdown against these workers, stating that the panicked flights are being propelled by unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay. Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sek Wannamethee claimed on Friday that the mass departures are in fact voluntary, and that many are returning to Cambodia to assist with rice farming at home. In addition, most returnees who were interviewed at the border have not actually witnessed violence or a forced eviction themselves.