Phnom Penh, 4 June 2014 – The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) – a coalition of 21 NGOs working in the field of the promotion Human Rights, Democracy, and Rule of Law in the Kingdom of Cambodia raises serious concerns about Australia’s pending agreement with Cambodia to resettle its refugees here.
Of the almost one million asylum seekers worldwide in 2012 (UNHCR), Australia’s annual intake is just over 2% compared to other developed countries (Germany at 12%, USA at 17%). Australia has a long and problematic history when it comes to the treatment of these asylum seekers. After the agreement to send about 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia was declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia in 2011, the Australian government is now attempting to resettle about 1,000 refugees in Cambodia. The fact that Cambodia, unlike Malaysia, has ratified the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees appears to be the only criterion the Australian government is concerned with.
Scott Morrison, the Australian Immigration Minister recently stated: “refugee status is not a ticket to a first class economy” and that “It’s not about whether they are poor, it’s about whether they can be safe.” While it is normal practice to resettle refugees received in poorer countries to more developed countries under the Refugee Convention this pending agreement seeks to do the opposite. CHRAC contends it is irresponsible that a ‘first class economy’ like Australia is shifting its responsibilities and obligations under the Refugee Convention onto a country with a history of serious human rights abuse and little or no resources to support incoming refugees.
However, the most pressing question Scott Morrison’s statement raises is whether Cambodia is actually a safe place for refugees. According to the UNHCR a resettlement country should provide the refugee with “legal and physical protection, including access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals”. Anyone aware of the situation in Cambodia knows that the ‘rights enjoyed by nationals’ in Cambodia are far from enviable.
Cambodia’s recent history of human rights violations is well documented, with freedom of expression, assembly and association regularly under attack, while corruption is widespread. There is also a serious culture of impunity where Cambodian security forces and government agencies have been known to commit abuses such as killings, torture, and arbitrary detention without being held accountable. Those living on the margins are particularly vulnerable to these abuses.
In addition, Cambodia’s track record with asylum seekers and refugees is very shaky. Under pressure from China, Cambodia forcibly deported 20 ethnic Uighurs asylum seekers back to China in 2009, where they were either executed or subjected to lengthy prison sentences. The Kingdom has also been responsible for the forced return of the Khmer Krom activist monks to Vietnamese authorities. The Cambodian authorities then used this deportation as a threat for the Krom community to ward them against further activism promoting their rights.
For the 68 asylum seekers and refugees currently living in Cambodia everyday life is a struggle. They certainly do not enjoy the same rights as nationals; many cannot get a job because they have no working permit, cannot open a bank account or purchase property, send money overseas, nor do they have access to suitable education and healthcare services.
The current proposed deal between Australia and Cambodia is shrouded in secrecy where opposition parties in Australia and the public have no access to any information relating to this deal. Media reports that between $40 – $80 millions are promised by the Australian Government to the Cambodian Government in development aid in exchange for the resettlement of these refugees. Given that it is widely accepted corruption is rampant in the Cambodian Government, CHRAC is gravely concerned that the ‘aid’ money Australia is providing will simply go into the pockets of individual Government Officials.
CHRAC is calling on the Australia Government to reconsider the refugee deal it has struck with the Cambodian Government. This deal contravenes the Refugee Convention as there is no way the Australian Government can ensure once these refugees reach Cambodia that they will be afforded any of the fundamental human rights protection that are taken for granted in Australia.
It is clear that Cambodia is in a human rights crisis of its own; that the refugees currently residing in the country are deprived of basic rights and that this situation is not likely to change by the time Australia brings its refugees in the country. Cambodia is not a safe place for refugees and the only parties benefitting from this agreement are the Australian government and Cambodian government officials.
For more information, please contact:
-Mr. Sok Sam Oeun, Chairman of CHRAC, 012 901199
-Mr. Thun Saray, President, ADHOC, 016 440044
-Mr. Run Saray, Executive Director of LAC, 012 838341
-Ms. Sith Hong Eang, Acting President, 017 788955
-Mr. Yong Kim Eng, President of PDP – Center, 016 828211
-Mr. Suon Bunsak, Chief of CHRAC secretariat, 092 344357