16 September 2014

Cambodia: Australia’s new “dumping ground” for refugees?

Is Cambodia Australia’s new “dumping ground” for refugees, asks Kiri-Ana Libbesson.

Is Cambodia Australia’s new “dumping ground” for refugees, asks Kiri-Ana Libbesson.

Australia is creating a pattern of dumping asylum seekers and refugees elsewhere. Its refugee policy has previously been described as the “Western world’s worst practice”, with respect to the strictly enforced mandatory (and prolonged) detention of boat arriving asylum seekers, among other key issues. From sending asylum seekers for offshore processing in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru, to previous attempts to resettle genuine refugees in Malaysia and PNG, Australia is quickly gaining a reputation of trying to outsource its international obligations to other Asia-Pacific nations.

Now the developed and wealthy nation has chosen Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Asia, and one that is still recovering from its own tragic history, as its new spot to send refugees. Australia and Cambodia agreed to the deal ‘in principle’ earlier this year, and it is expected to be finalised very soon. The details of the agreement have been kept fairly secret, but sources (particularly within Cambodia) have revealed that it involves transferring 1000 approved refugees from the processing centre in Nauru for resettlement within Cambodia (possibly on a remote island). Although officials initially denied that any payment was being offered as part of the deal, it has been speculated that AU$40million in aid will be provided to Cambodia in return for accepting the refugees.

Such a deal immediately raises serious red flags.

First, Cambodia does not likely have the resources to host and support 1000 refugees with adequate living standards. Although improving, much of the Cambodian population still lives in poverty or near-poverty. Many Cambodians struggle to make a living, with 45% of the population being “multidimensionally poor”. Children are often seen on the streets selling books and bracelets, during school hours and even in the very early hours of the morning around the late-night areas of Phnom Penh. Not to mention the child prostitution industry that exists within the country.

So how will Cambodia provide for all the new refugees? Where will they live and work, and what will their healthcare be like? What about mental health services to help those traumatised from having fled their homelands, travelled on horrific and dangerous boat journeys, and later been locked up in awful living conditions in Nauru. How will the children be educated in a country that struggles to provide proper education for its own citizens? For the small population of refugees already living in Cambodia, life is reported to be very tough; their lack of work permits being just one of the barriers to rebuilding their lives.

Cambodia certainly does not have the ability (nor probably the will) to offer refugees the same level of services and protection that Australia could, even if the UN provides support as it has suggested it will.

Then there’s Cambodia’s bad track record with sending refugees back to the countries they were fleeing: having sent Uighur asylum seekers back to China in 2009, and Montagnard refugees back to Vietnam. With this history, Cambodia certainly would not be an obvious pick on where to relocate refugees.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has insisted that only refugees who voluntarily agree to be resettled in Cambodia will be accepted, and he has said that they will enjoy the same rights to work and education as Cambodian citizens. That sounds nice. So does the fact that Cambodia is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and that the Cambodian Constitution recognises and respects human rights protected by the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as numerous treaties and conventions.

However, all of this means very little when we continue to see countless examples of the Cambodian government failing to respect the human rights of even its own citizens.

Drug users and other “undesirables”, such as homeless people, sex workers and street children, are reportedly unlawfully detained in detention centres and subject to forced labour and physical and sexual abuse.

Lack of proper land titling documentation has seen vast amounts of people forcibly evicted off their land by the government, to make way for developments by Chinese investors. Evictees are typically given little or inappropriate compensation or relocation, if any.

Many people, such as garment factory workers, are paid less than a liveable wage and basic working conditions are not respected. There have been stories of workers’ pay being docked by significant amounts for every minute they are late. What’s more, there are reports of pregnant garment factory workers with little job security administering abortions on themselves to avoid risking losing their job.

This is the country Australia wants to send refugees to.

Although often fairly socially non-confrontational people, Cambodians do fight staunchly for their rights, and protests against the various human rights abuses are common. However, those who stand up for their rights are not safe either.

Although technically recognised by Cambodian legislation, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are constantly under attack (quite literally). Phnom Penh’s “Freedom Park”, built to be a safe place for peaceful protest, has only recently been reopened after 7 months, since government authorities destructively shut it down and temporarily banned demonstrations within the country. The closure followed a protest from the previous day, in which police opened fire on protesting garment factory workers, resulting in at least 4 deaths and dozens of injuries.

It is not uncommon to hear stories of arbitrary arrests, injuries, and even deaths of human rights activists, journalists, government critics and political opponents. Convictions and prison terms for legally dubious charges are common, such as Yorm Bopha – a land rights activist who was the subject of a politically-motivated arrest and conviction without any substantive evidence.

Stories like Yorm Bopha’s are not uncommon, and not really surprising in a country where the judiciary is not completely independent, and therefore susceptible to political influence, and is very poorly paid, and hence vulnerable to bribes.

Indeed, Cambodia’s whole legal system is still struggling to survive after having been almost entirely destroyed and rebuilt from scratch only 30 years ago – after the Khmer Rouge there were only 10 qualified lawyers left in the country, the rest having died or fled. Deficiencies in the court system are widespread, and the right to a fair trial is almost never completely respected. For example, poorly trained and poorly paid judges often fail to even inform defendants of their legal rights, such as the right to defend themselves, or the right to have a lawyer, among various other problems in the system.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) (which has exercised authoritarian rule over Cambodia since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge), did not even allow the national election in July 2013 to be free and fair, resulting in the opposition party boycotting parliament until early August this year. The election process saw many irregularities, such as vast numbers of “ghost voters”, unreasonable restrictions for many citizens and residents to register as voters, physical restraint of opposition supporters to prevent them from voting, and bribery to gain support and votes for the ruling party, to name a few. Not to mention the unequal campaigning restrictions, and the scare tactics used in the election period, such as the significantly increased military presence in and around Phnom Penh, and the Prime Minister’s threat of civil war if his party lost. Despite persistent lobbying by human rights groups, activists, and the opposition party, the irregularities continued without proper investigation, and Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party remain in power.

On top of the numerous problems in Cambodia, and often adding to them, corruption is rampant, from top-level ministers, to the judiciary, to the police. Cambodia is the most corrupt country in South East Asia, ranking 160th out of 177 countries surveyed by Transparency International in 2013. Given Cambodia’s propensity to corruption, it has been speculated that the money provided by Australia in respect of the refugee deal will likely not be spent in providing for the refugees, nor will filter through to the Cambodian population, but is more likely go straight into the hands of the corrupt leaders.

Australia’s deal with Cambodia has been condemned by human rights groups, UN officials, Australian and Cambodian opposition politicians, lawyers and academics, among others. It has even been described as “human trafficking”. Once again, Australia is being globally criticised for illegally avoiding its international obligations, and setting a scary precedent in its treatment of refugees.

Although many important human rights are recognised in writing by Cambodian law, in practice they are not respected. How can Australia therefore trust that Cambodia will support and protect the refugees? How can Australia delegate its international responsibilities to a country that does not have the capacity or the will to fulfil them?

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a very kind, compassionate, and generous majority. However, it is also an impoverished country with unfair elections and widespread corruption; where human rights are not respected by the government, and where brutality and unlawful detention by government security forces are carried out with impunity. Cambodia is certainly not in a position to be hosting a large amount of vulnerable refugees, particularly those that are the responsibility of a much wealthier nation.

If Australia insists on delegating its obligations and dumping refugees elsewhere, it should not be in Cambodia – a country in which the rights or safety of refugees cannot be guaranteed.


Kiri-Ana Libbesson is an Australian lawyer passionate about social justice. She spent 3 months in 2013 volunteering at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, where she undertook advocacy work on various human rights issues, such as land rights and fair trial rights, as well as monitoring the controversies involved in the national election.
Tags: asean, australia, refugees, human rights

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