Australia enlists Cambodia in drive to deter refugees

Sarah Whyte
Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 2015

Gently wringing his hands, Iraqi teenager Emad Hashim Abid Farhan looks down as his eyes begin to well with tears.

“Most of my friends died from my hometown,” the 18-year-old says. “I don’t think about it because I’ll cry if I think about that.”

One year ago Emad and his family, including his four brothers, mother and father fled violence in Iraq, west of Baghdad. Scores of his neighbours, friends and family members were killed when militia invaded their town of Fallujah.

“It was sad to lose my best friends. They were friends that I had for more than 10 years,” Emad says.

But Emad does not tell his story from a refugee camp. He is sitting in his family’s small Middle Eastern restaurant in one of the busiest roads of Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh. Motorbikes weave in and out of the traffic as tourists and locals come to eat their exotic food.

In one sense, Emad is a poster boy for Australia’s controversial $40 million deal to send refugees from Nauru to Cambodia – a demonstration that one of Asia’s poorest countries can safely resettle asylum seekers.

This week the Abbott government renewed its push to get asylum seekers on Nauru to agree to be settled on Cambodia, issuing a fact sheet spruiking it as a safe and harmonious country. A chartered plane is reportedly scheduled to transfer some asylum seekers from Nauru to Cambodia on Monday.

But it is not that simple. Emad’s family are not considered as refugees by the Cambodian government. Their claim for protection is still being considered by the United Nations refugee agency in Malaysia and they live in the country on a temporary business visa that costs money that many of those on Nauru do not have.

But Emad’s family are actually better off than the fewer than 100 refugees in Cambodia whose claims have been recognised but who have not been provided with documents giving them permanency and who struggle to secure anything more than the most menial, part-time jobs.

This helps explain why refugees on Nauru have been so reluctant to move to Cambodia under the deal that was sealed over the clinking of champagne glasses back in September between then Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison and Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

Canberra’s novel approach – to try to outsource refugee resettlement to a poor developing country like Cambodia – is being closely watched by European countries such as Britain, Italy and Germany that are all experiencing a high influx of asylum seekers.

Australia argues that Cambodia is a country on the rise – with significant economic growth of 7.7 per cent and that it has almost halved the rate of poverty in just seven years. Nearly 40 per cent of Cambodians own mobile phones and the growing garment industry alone is worth $5 billion.

But aid organisations say the resettlement idea is inappropriate for a country that has been accused of human rights abuses and has no refugee resettlement experience. About a fifth of the nation lives below the poverty line and another 20 per cent live just above it, leaving the country vulnerable to an economic collapse.

In February the Hun Sen government forcibly deported 36 Vietnamese ethnic minority refugees who had claimed asylum citing religious persecution. NGOs point to this as a timely reminder of why Cambodia is the wrong country to partner with.

More importantly, getting volunteers to leave Nauru for Cambodiais proving difficult. When the deal was struck in September Morrison predicted that “four or five” refugees would be living in the country by either late 2014 or early this year. Not one refugee has volunteered to move, despite both governments trying their hardest to convince them to do so.

The Cambodian national director of World Vision, Jason Evans, says that the NGO, along with the “vast majority of international NGOs” were of the strong opinion that the deal was not in the interests of Cambodian citizens and may add “additional strains on a country still experiencing high degrees of poverty”.

“We do trust that the Australian government is doing its due diligence, however, we are concerned about the precedent that this sets, as this type of deal is not something that the development community would support,” Evans says.

In February the International Organisation of Migration agreed to resettle the refugees. The offer would also extend to the small number of refugees already in Cambodia, who until now have had little to no assistance from the Cambodian government.

It is understood that local NGOs are now being approached to assist the resettlement phase including housing and access to education, which the Australia government will pay for, and are likely to agree to be involved.

But who on Nauru will agree to the deal remains the key problem.

“There will be a great opportunity for people, in particular with an entrepreneurial spirit, that are on Nauru at the moment that may have come from a small business background to go to Cambodia because there is opportunity for them there to make a new start,” Morrison’s successor as immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said in March.

Dutton could have been thinking of a family like Emad’s. But the Farhan family appear to be the exception to the rule.

Sister Denise Coghlan, an Australia nun who runs the Jesuit Refugee Service, in Cambodia says employment and the lack of documents remain the biggest issues for refugees.

In many instances legitimate refugees have been turned away from work because employers are afraid they are hiring illegal migrants, Coghlan says.

Of the few refugees who do live in Cambodia, not many want to stay, she says. “The young ones say there is no chance for education. They don’t have proper documentation which doesn’t give them the right to work.”

When one male refugee on Nauru is asked whether he is likely to take up the deal, he replies on Facebook: “No and never. If they do that, I will kill myself.”

These types of replies are common from the people living on Nauru. They desperately want to get to Australia, but cannot under the Abbott government’s harsh immigration policies, which is drilled into them at any opportune moment.

“I repeat this very strong message that people on Nauru will not be coming to Australia,” Dutton said at a recent press conference. “They will not be coming to Australia under any circumstance.”

But for Cambodia, the opportunity to partner with Australia has finally given the country long-awaited legitimacy in Asia.

On the fifth floor of the government’s expansive grey Ministry Building, the Secretary of State spokesman Phay Siphan says that the refugees will be welcomed in the country, adding that if they work hard, they will be able to “get rich”.

He also says it’s time Cambodia stepped up to help Australia shoulder the responsibility of the global movement of refugees but then says they will not accept political refugees from Vietnam or China, only those with a “humanitarian claim”.

“We don’t allow political refugees to springboard into our country,” the spokesman says. “That is our national security. Those people are not refugees, they are just getting away from the government.”

Indeed, based on the Hun Sen government’s past treatment of refugees, expats in Cambodia say they were alarmed when the decision to resettle refugees was announced.

Colin Meyn, the American editor of the Cambodia Daily, says the country has a “very shoddy past” in its treatment of refugees who all have limited work opportunities.

“The Australian government and the IOM would be naive to place any trust in the Cambodia government in this instance and need to take all measures possible to make sure that the refugees are taken care of,” Meyn says.

Locally, the agreement has barely had any impact, Meyn said, with most Cambodians being more concerned about their own land rights and getting food on the table.

Australian author Sebastian Strangio, who has lived in Cambodia for seven years and recently published Hun Sen’s Cambodia, says that the actual resettlement of the refugees is almost irrelevant.

“Whether anyone gets sent here is neither here nor there,” Strangio says. “The point is the Abbott government has the deterrent and the Cambodian government has a sweet aid package.”

According to Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, the $40 million pledged will be spent on several of Australia’s aid commitments including landmine clearance over four years. But corruption is rife in Cambodia and the Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy says he does not support the deal because of it.

In Australia, human rights groups continue to express their dismay. The director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, says the precedentis worrying.

“At a time of unprecedented global need, it is fundamentally unhelpful for Australia to be prowling around the region picking off impoverished nations onto which we can offload the tiny fraction of the world’s refugees who seek our protection,” he said.

For the Farhan family, they know little about the resettlement deal with the Abbott government, but say they want to eventually move to Australia. Emad says he wants to study engineering, but at the moment he works six days a week to help his father run the restaurant.

“Iraq is not safe for my family,” says Emad’s father Hashim, who has now joined Emad at the table. “The Iraqi army, most of them strike with rockets.”

Hashim wants to move his family to Sydney or Melbourne. “My friends, they say it is difficult to come to Australia,” he says. “We hope to emigrate there, but how?”

It’s a simple question that may never be answered.

This article was originally published here.

Sarah Whyte was in Cambodia for the 2015 International Development Journalism Fellowship.