Thursday, July 24, 2014

Power imbalance evident in Abbott government pressure on Cambodia over refugee resettlement

The Cambodia  Herald - July 24, 2014
By Susan Price

SYDNEY -- The Australian government's efforts to pressure Cambodia to take refugees from Nauru were discussed at a forum organised by the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) on July 14. Three of the most significant points made during the forum were the following:

* As a rich country, Australia should abide by its obligations to refugees. It should not take advantage of power imbalance or conditional aid to offload responsibility for these refugees onto Cambodia which will have difficulty providing employment and support.

* In desperately seeking a deal with Cambodia, the Australian government reveals the untenable and unsustainable nature of its arrangement with Nauru for detention of asylum seekers.

* RAC and other Australian refugee advocates vow to campaign together with Cambodian people to stop the Abbott government's asylum seeker deal.

The first speaker, Kyja Noack-Lundberg from RAC, told the meeting that Cambodia has been considering a memorandum of understanding with the Australian government to resettle refugees from Nauru.

The deal being negotiated between Australia and Cambodia appeared to be on track in May, but news of it has all but disappeared from the media since then.

Noack-Lundberg told the meeting that if this deal goes through, it is likely that over 1000 refugees will be resettled in Cambodia. As of 23 May 2014, there were 1162 people held on Nauru, with a further 1244 on Manus Island in PNG, and 1251 on Christmas Island. <Source:>

Christmas Island is part of Australia's territory, but was officially excised from the Australian migration zone in 2001 by the Howard government, following the Tampa incident.


According to media reports, Cambodia insists that it will only take refugees who voluntarily wish to be resettled there. However, Noack-Lundberg said that Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison had suggested publicly that refugee claims by those who refuse to volunteer should be questioned: "Resettlement is a voluntary process. But it does raise an interesting question though. If someone who says they are persecuted is offered a safe country where they can go and that country is not to their economic liking then I think that does raise questions about the claim." <Source:>

"Morrison’s own words…are a good illustration of the precarious nature of determining what is voluntary and what is coerced in this situation," Noack-Lundberg said.

There are compelling reasons, according to Noack-Lundberg, for Australia to meet its obligations to accept refugees for resettlement, rather than outsource these to underdeveloped nations in our region. Apart from being a signatory to the International Refugee Convention, Australia is a wealthy country. "We have the tenth highest per capita GDP in the world," Noack-Lundberg explained. "Cambodia, on the other hand, even according to the DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] website, remains one of the world's least developed countries, with an estimated GDP per capita in 2012 of US$934."

"Cambodia currently only has 69 refugees, mostly Rohingyans from Burma, who are living in the community with no support, and there is very limited infrastructure for resettling refugees," Noack-Lundberg told the forum.

"In Australia, we have infrastructure in place for processing and resettling refugees and we definitely have the money, especially since [the Australian government is] projected to spend $4 billion over four years on processing and border protection deterrence methods."

Matt Hilton, chair of AID/WATCH, was critical of Australia's motivations for pursuing the Cambodia deal. Hilton is the author of "Off the Rails", a scathing report into an Asian Development Bank and AusAID project in Cambodia to rehabilitate railways, the beneficiaries of which were not Cambodia's poor, but private companies, such as Australian company Toll Holdings, which now runs the railways. For a copy of the report, see: . 

Hilton told the meeting that $380 million from Australia's foreign aid budget had been diverted by the government into funding offshore refugee detention programs.

Hilton also explained that human rights groups in Cambodia oppose the refugee deal, and that land grabs (45 percent of land in Cambodia is now in the hands of private companies), attacks on labour rights, corruption and impunity for the wealthy, and Cambodia's failure to prevent torture are all serious concerns.

According to Hilton, Cambodia's track record in the treatment of asylum seekers is also cause for concern, citing the deportation of Uighur refugees by Cambodia to torture and murder.


Rosanna Barbero, Coordinator of the Addison Road Community Centre, and Chair of Womyn's Agenda for Change, an NGO located in Cambodia, took up the question of why Cambodia would agree to the deal, and outlined the policies which have shaped the development of Cambodia over four decades since the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

Barbero told the audience that following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia became the first UN-administered state, and an explosion in non-government organisations established themselves in the country.

According to The Diplomat, today there are around 3,500 registered NGOs in Cambodia, the second highest number of NGOs per capita ratio in the world, after Rwanda. <Source:>

Barbero indicated that this "rule by NGOs and the UN" led to the delegitimisation of the Cambodian elected government as well as the accelerated implementation of a neoliberal agenda imposed by Cambodia's reliance on international aid. "The government was forced to privatise and to commercialise," Barbero explained. Mining and fishing concessions were sold off, and land became a valuable commodity. "It was fast-forward capitalism."

After decades of international development aid, Cambodians are still extremely poor. Barbero explained that people are forced to cross borders, or to travel to big cities from rural villages to find work.

"Australia is the fourth largest aid donor to Cambodia", Barbero told the meeting. "Cambodia agreed to the deal because they had to: there is imbalance of power." This explains Australia's ability to pursue the deal, and the pressure on Cambodia to take it.

Speaking from the floor, James Supple of RAC addressed the question of why the Australian government needs the deal with Cambodia. He pointed out that asylum seekers detained on Nauru who are determined to be refugees cannot settle there: at best they obtain five years of temporary residence. He also noted that although an in-principle agreement was reached between Australia and Papua New Guinea a year ago, none of the people sent to Manus Island have yet been resettled anywhere. 

Finally, Supple warned that even if refugees were to be settled in Cambodia, either they would be unsupported, or provision of resources for them would risk causing resentment against them among citizens not receiving such aid.


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