Refugee Obligations Shirked: Australia’s Unwanted Refugees Arrive in Cambodia From Nauru

On June 4, four refugees arrived in Phnom Penh’s VIP airport terminal, processed in an area usually reserved for royalty, government officials, or the odd pop star. As they were ushered into a curtained van, dozens of media organizations encircled the three Iranians and one ethnic Rohingya, eager to document the first refugees from the Australian-run Nauru detention center to be permanently resettled in Cambodia. Their arrival in Phnom Penh marks yet another chapter in Australia’s shameful asylum-seeker narrative—a narrative that systematically denies refugees the right to protection and asylum on the Australian mainland.  

For months, Australia has been pushing hard to get asylum-seekers currently held in the Nauru detention camp to permanently resettle to Cambodia. So far, the Australian government has spent a whopping USD$43.1 million to establish and operationalize the highly controversial ‘Cambodia Deal.’ A secretive bilateral agreement between Cambodia and Australia, the deal deflects Australia’s international refugee obligations to the Southeast Asian developing nation in exchange for money and foreign aid. To incentivize the 677 asylum-seekers currently detained in Nauru to be resettled in one of the world’s poorest countries, the Australian government has offered lucrative cash packages ranging between $10,000 and $15,000 to each refugee. 

The ‘Cambodia Deal’ is only one component of Australia’s draconian asylum-seeker policy. Through a series of bilateral agreements with Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru, Australia has repeatedly finagled its way out of its international refugee obligations. It’s a sordid exchange: Australia trades its refugee responsibilities to other developing countries for money. Because developing countries in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia regions rely heavily on Australia for trade and foreign aid, Australia’s economic and political clout endows it with a distinct political bargaining advantage in the region. With a flick of its wallet-bearing hand, Australia has offered the Nauruan and Cambodian governments US$29.5 million and US$31 million respectively to permanently resettle formerly Australian-bound asylum-seekers.  In doing so, they deny refugees the right to protection and asylum on Australian mainland, as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and expose the conflict-fleeing asylum-seekers to conditions that have been widely condemned by the Human Rights CouncilUNHCR, and numerous other human rights NGOs

To paint a not-so-pretty picture: the 677 asylum-seekers who have attempted to seek protection in Australia are currently detained in basic camp conditions on Nauru, as part of an agreement between the Australian and Nauruan governments. As they wait for their cases to be reviewed—a process that can take up to two years—the asylum-seekers live in cramped, rodent-infested tents that leak after heavy Pacific island rains. Many cope with the reality of ‘extra-territorial processing’ through a heavy regimen of anti-depressants and sleeping pills. Most are being denied access to essential health services and legal representation. 

Recent reports have emerged of guards spying on women as they lie in their quarters in their underwear, trying to cool off from the viscous humidity of Nauru. The recent Moss Review cited sexual assault and rape in the center. To make matters worse, extortionately high visa fees for journalists entering Nauru—with a price tag of $8,000—have snuffed out the media voices acting as a check-and-balance on conditions in the camp. 

Cambodia’s human rights history is no shining talisman either. According to Transparency International, Cambodia’s government is among the world’s most corrupt. Though one of the few countries in the region that is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Cambodia’s track record with refugees is dubious. In 2009, the Cambodian government forcibly deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China at gunpoint. In February, Cambodia forced dozens of Vietnamese Christian Montagnards to return to Vietnam, after they had attempted to flee religious persecution in their home country. 

In a global context, Australia’s asylum seeker policy sets a dangerous precedent for other nations to follow suit. Paying economically vulnerable states to shoulder a wealthy country’s international refugee obligations normalizes the deeply problematic idea that a deep pocket can fend off international responsibilities.   

Using money to shirk refugee obligations is not an “incredibly creative” approach, as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently characterized his party’s asylum seeker policies, after it was reported on Friday that Australian border officials were paying people smugglers $30,000 to turn back boats of asylum seekers to Indonesia. No, it is an inhumane, ethically blind approach that Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, has condemned in Vice for setting “a dangerous precedent where it is okay to trade refugees for money.” 

Mattea Mrkusic is an intern with Refugees International’s climate displacement program and a junior at Harvard University. She can be reached via Twitter at @MatteaMrkusic.

Photo: Three out of the four refugees from Nauru Island arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport. Image credit: REUTERS