Peter Dutton defends Nauru hospitals as better than some in Australia as Cambodia deal takes a step forward

Sarah Whyte and Heath Aston
26 March 2015

Asylum seekers on Nauru receive schooling of the same standard as in Australia and access to hospital facilities that are better than some regional areas, says Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

But a Cambodian official compared the living conditions of detainees to those of “animals”.

Mr Dutton mounted the defence of Australia’s detention facilities as he signed a memorandum of understanding with the Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia, Sar Kheng, that will clear the way for the resettlement of refugees to that country.

As the government deals with the fall-out of the Moss review into sexual abuse on Nauru, which exposed evidence of rapes, sexual assault on minors and Nauruan guards trading marijuana for sexual favours, Mr Dutton said the facility was well-resourced.

“I’ve been to many hospitals in regional Australia, including in towns where people would say that those hospitals aren’t up to the standard of those in Nauru. I also had the opportunity, the great privilege, to go to Afghanistan to see our troops and the field hospital that I saw there … was not in my judgement up to the standard that I saw in Nauru,” he said.

“I also went to the educational facilities, the classrooms there [in the detention centre in Nauru] where young people at taxpayers’ expense are being provided with English classes and schooling otherwise that is of a standard at least as good as in Australia.”

A “first wave” of three to five families is expected to resettle in Cambodia in coming months.

Cambodian government officials are on Nauru to speak to families but there are signs of resistance among asylum seeker families.

Mr Dutton warned that some “well-intentioned people” in Australia and elsewhere were trying to “provide messages” to people in Nauru not to accept resettlement.

“For those people in Nauru … I think it’s very important to properly consider the offer that is on the table in relation to going to Cambodia,” he said.

In Cambodia, an official said the Hun Sen government had agreed to the $40 million refugee resettlement deal to “pay back” Australia for taking their own refugees after the country’s bloody civil war.

It comes as the Hun Sen government defended the forced deportation of a number of indigenous Vietnamese refugees late last month as a “national security” matter.

The Secretary of State spokesman Phay Siphan said that the Hun Sen government had agreed to the deal with Australia on humanitarian grounds and that Cambodia “felt sorry for Australia” for shouldering the burden of refugee resettlement.

“We understand how hard it is,” Mr Siphan said from his office in Phnom Penh.

“[Refugees] are like animal at the camps, they have no right to move, they have no right to do anything.

“We give them a choice, where we open to everyone [on] what can you learn from Cambodia as a hosting country.

“It’s not fair that Australian government has spent so much money for refugees,” he said.

It is not known how many refugees living on Nauru will take up the offer to permanently resettle in the South Asian nation, nor how much it will cost the Abbott government to facilitate the resettlement with the International Organisation of Migration. This is in addition to the $40 million in aid that has already been pledged for development assistance over four years.

Mr Siphan estimated “10 to 15” families could take up the offer in a “pilot program”, while Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told local Cambodian media last week that “three to five” families would initially volunteer to move to the country.

“Australia was open to Cambodian refugees, we have to pay back something. We don’t want to take and take from Australia,” Mr Siphan said.

“These people, we will treat them equally as all Cambodians.

“They will become rich if they work hard.”

By contrast, nearly 40 Christian Montagnards – an indigenous group who claim they face religious persecution and live in the Northern Highlands of Vietnam – were allegedly deported to Vietnam by the Cambodian government in February.

Mr Siphan said the government would not take “political refugees” from Vietnam or China.

“We don’t allow political refugees to springboard into our country,” he said.

“That is our national security,” he said. “Those people are not refugees, they are just getting away from the government, they are not refugees.

“We call it illegal immigration,” he said.

Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch has questioned the conditions refugees will face in Cambodia, saying that most refugees already in Cambodia are “living hand to mouth with few employment opportunities, facing racism and corruption on a daily basis, and inadequate services”.

“Cambodia is neither safe nor equipped to resettle refugees,” she said. “The Cambodian government has consistently shown it is willing to sign agreements and even laws, yet completely fail to implement them – like its own refugee law.”

This week the Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who is implementing the resettlement deal, is in Australia to discuss the plan further.

But the deal has been heavily criticised by a number of international aid agencies based in Cambodia who said they did not support it, arguing it was not appropriate for a country that has been accused of human rights abuses and has no refugee resettlement experience.

This article was originally published here.

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