Australia to Send Refugees to Cambodia Under Controversial Deal

April 16, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

CANBERRA, Australia—In a a controversial move, the Australian government said Thursday unwanted refugees will soon fly from the Pacific atoll of Nauru to be resettled in Cambodia.

A charter flight could fly the first refugees to be resettled in Phnom Penh as early as Monday, according to a copy of a fact sheet that the Refugee Action Collective advocacy group said has been circulated at Nauru.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office did not specify when the first group will fly under a bilateral agreement signed by Cambodia and Australia last September. “The first group of volunteers is anticipated to depart for Cambodia in the near future,” his office said in a statement.

The agreement specifies that all refugees who leave the Australia-run detention camp on Nauru must be volunteers.

The fact sheet, distributed by Australian officials, tells refugees that “Cambodia is a safe country where police maintain law and order.”

“It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs,” it said.

However, the U.S. State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security reported this month that Cambodia’s crime rating was “critical.”

“Endemic corruption” within the Cambodian police and judiciary compounded safety and security problems, leading to “civilian vigilante-style justice,” the report for 2014 said.

It said random gunfire incidents, as well as gunfire exchanges due to traffic accidents, occurred frequently.

The intergovernmental International Organization for Migration was sending an official to Nauru “with an expectation of possible movements in the coming days,” IOM’s Bangkok-based spokesman Joe Lowry said Thursday.

IOM will start a cultural orientation process on Nauru for refugees who want to go to Cambodia. It will also help them find housing, jobs and learn the language once they arrive.

The deal with Cambodia will cost the Australian government more than 10 million Australian dollars ($7.6 million) a year and has been condemned by human rights groups.

The fact sheet, dated April 10, promises a one-off package for the first who agree to be resettled.

“Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future,” it said. “If you are not in the first group of refugees to settle in Cambodia, your assistance package will be different.”

Refugee Action Collective spokesman Ian Rintoul said he had heard of no one on Nauru accepting the deal. “I do know they spoke to Somalis yesterday and said it was the last day for them to agree and none of them agreed,” Rintoul said.

“They’re pushing pretty hard around the place, but as far as I know, they’ve got no one yet,” he added.

The fact sheet offered “cash in hand and in a bank account,” but did not specify sums. The package includes help in finding work, and access to education, language training and health insurance for four years.

On arrival in Phnom Penh, refugees would be provided free “villa-style accommodation,” or “in the style of a serviced-apartment” for three months.

After that, refugees would receive rental support “for up to 12 months, and longer if you need it,” the document said.

Refugees could apply for Cambodian citizenship after seven years, and children born within that time would be recognized as Cambodian nationals.

Australia refuses to resettle refugees who attempt to reach its shores by boat. It pays Nauru to house asylum seekers and has a similar deal with Papua New Guinea.

More than 200 of the 1,200 asylum seekers on Nauru, including Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Somalis, Sudanese and Uighurs, had been assessed to be genuine refugees.