Australia's asylum seekers to be resettled in Cambodia in return for $35 million aid

Human rights groups denounce plan as 'making Cambodia a human dumping ground for Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers'

Cambodian migrants fleeing Thailand in June
Cambodian migrants fleeing Thailand in June

Last Friday Australian officials announced plans to resettle more than 1,000 asylum seekers in Cambodia. The first few will be sent later this year from the tiny island nation of Nauru, one of two locations where Australia holds its unwanted visitors. 

In return, Cambodia will reportedly receive approximately $35 million in development aid. 

Cambodia, a country still recovering from a long civil war and decades of Khmer Rouge rule that caused its own refugee exodus into Thailand, has a record of mistreating refugees: in the past it has been accused of returning refugees to Vietnam and North Korea in return for money.

 In 2009, Cambodia sent more than 20 asylum seekers back to China at the request of the Chinese government, after which China pledged Cambodia $1 billion in aid.  The asylum seekers were subsequently sentenced to long prison sentences for their involvement in peaceful protests in July 2009 against government inaction over a deadly attack on Uyghur factory workers in Guangdong Province. 

More recently, Cambodia's been the scene of rampant human rights violations, with government forces shooting protesters and detaining several political opposition members in the past year.

Human rights groups are describing the plan as, in essence, making Cambodia a "human dumping ground" for Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers.

As one of the first countries to sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Australia is in theory committed to allowing in and protecting refugees -- people with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" in the country they've left. But Canberra, which is now considering replacing the Convention's requirements with its own policy, has long taken its own road.

In an effort to deter asylum seekers, Australia had reopened infamous offshore detention centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island in 2012.  Some two thousand people, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, are currently detained there for an average of 275 days. 

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is reported to have told journalists earlier this month that "we are world renowned for what we do on refugee resettlement, so who better is placed than Australia to work with a country such as Cambodia to help them develop that capability to do the job as well?“