Australia: Shirking Refugee Responsibility onto Cambodia?

Last night we ventured to Meta House in Phnom Penh to participate in the highly controversial debate surrounding Australia’s most recent refugee resettlement deal with Cambodia. The panel consisted of Sister Denise Coghlan, an Australian who runs the Jesuit Mission in Phnom Penh, Jim Brooke, the Editor in Chief at Khmer Times, Billy Chia-Lung Tai from the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, and a Cambodian government representative.


Each representative had an interesting perspective on the resettlement deal, with Sister Denise and Billy Chia-Lung Tai firmly believing that Australia should take responsibility for the refugee crisis, rather than paying another country to deal with their “problem”. Conversely, Jim Brooke argued the notion of “refugee snobs”, and stated that it was no surprise that most refugees preferred to wait to relocate to Australia, the 5th wealthiest country in the world. His perspective was highly controversial at the debate, with many audience members challenging his views and beliefs. The debate not only encouraged passionate conversations between audience members and the panel, but highlighted the embarrassment felt by a lot of Australian citizens in the room.


The Australian government’s newest ploy at skirting responsibility for refugee rights offers current detainees at Nauru to relocate to Cambodia under a $40 million resettlement deal. The deal was taken to refugees earlier this year, with officials handing out letters that promoted Cambodia’s cultural diversity, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Furthermore, the letter encouraged refugees to consider moving to Cambodia, as it provided an opportunity for families to “start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence.” Interestingly, only 4 refugees agreed to the deal, and have been relocated to Cambodia earlier this month. Whilst the Australian and Cambodian government assure that refugees will be financially supported and housed in serviced apartments, guesthouses or villas during the first 6-8 weeks of their relocation, they fail to mention the future prospects for these refugees.


Given Cambodia’s current economic and political climate, the Australian government has failed to provide a truthful interpretation of the struggles and inequity that Cambodian people face on a daily basis. The nation’s recent history of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime has meant that Cambodia is still recovering in all social, cultural, economic and political spheres. Problems of economic disadvantage and inequity remain entrenched in everyday life, and there is a visible divide amongst Cambodia’s social class structure. The World Bank suggests that 21% of the population live on or below the poverty line, 56% live in “vulnerable poverty”, 20% live in the middle class, and just 3% are considered as upper class citizens.


In regards to the perception of Cambodia as a “safe country”, the Australian government has recently criticised Cambodia’s human rights record, stating that the government needed to “stop its military from killing street protesters, quashing political opposition and detaining people without trial”. In January 2014, garment factory workers took to the streets of Phnom Penh to protest their working conditions and wages, asking for an increase from USD$80/month to $160/month. Whilst the government agreed to increase their wages by only $20/month, their peaceful demonstration was met by the police force, who opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 5 workers and injuring 40 others. These notions emphasise that Cambodian citizens are not free from persecution and violence; they often lack freedom of speech, and have a highly imbalanced social structure. So how can the Australian government expect refugee communities to thrive in a country that is still developing?


The debate last night highlighted that the main issue with the refugee resettlement deal is not Cambodia’s agreement to it, but rather that Australia has once again shirked its responsibilities of accepting refugees and asylum seekers into our own country. As recently as March 2015, the United Nations found Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers to violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Whilst the Australian government may believe passing their responsibility of refugees onto Cambodia will improve the current refugee situation, I believe it will only exacerbate it. Australia is already being strongly criticised by the international community for its violation of refugee’s basic human rights. How much more condemnation does Australia have to withstand, before we realise that resettlement deals in developing countries are not the compassionate, or logical solution to dealing with the current refugee crisis?


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