Refugees arrive in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia received its first batch of asylum seekers from Australian custody, with rights groups labelling them “human guinea pigs” for an uncaring policy by Canberra to offload refugees onto other countries.

The migrants – three Iranians and one ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar – were yesterday flown into Phnom Penh, the capital of one of South-East Asia’s poorest nations with a weak record of upholding human rights.

“They have arrived now and we already handed them to the IOM,” Chhay Bonna, the airport’s chief immigration officer, said, referring to the International Organisation for Migration, which is tasked with helping the four settle in.

The refugees, three men and one woman, were greeted by Cambodian immigration officials and representatives from Australia’s embassy at the VIP section of Phnom Penh’s airport, a reporter on the scene said.

The IOM said in a statement the group were being taken to temporary accommodation in the Cambodian capital where they would undergo language training as well as “cultural and social orientation”.

“They’re here, they’re healthy and we ask for privacy for them,” IOM regional spokesman Joe Lowry said.

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.

The controversial deal was inked last September to allow those granted refugee status in Nauru to permanently resettle in Cambodia.

Under the agreement, Cambodia will accept Australia’s unwanted refugees in return for millions of dollars of aid over the next four years. Canberra will cover all direct costs of the settlement arrangement and refugees will only be moved to the South-East Asian nation if they volunteer.

The arrival of the migrants was welcomed by Australian Immi­gration Minister Peter Dutton.

“I think we can demonstrate it can work for these four and others can follow,” he told broadcaster Sky News yesterday.

The United Nations has condemned the deal and refugee advocates said asylum seekers do not want to be sent to Cambodia, a country that has been criticised for its own record of helping refugees, particularly 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.

Rights groups hit out yesterday at the move to ship the first set of refugees to Cambodia under the deal with Australia.

“Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society,” Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch said.

“These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China.”

Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said Cambodia’s “poor record regarding the treatment of asylum seekers is well known”.

“It is hard to believe that the Cambodian people will benefit from an economic agreement between Cambodia and Australia over refugees,” she said. — AFP

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