Documents Shed Light on Refugee Deal

Refugees who resettle in Cambodia under a new deal with Australia will have to move out of Phnom Penh once they learn basic Khmer to continue receiving aid, and will get only 12 months of guaranteed assistance once they leave the capital, according to a copy of the agreement.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison christened the deal with a champagne toast at a signing ceremony in Phnom Penh on Friday afternoon despite persistent criticism that Australia is shirking its responsibility to the refugees, who are currently being held on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru, by sending them to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.

On Friday, neither side provided a copy of the memorandum of understanding (MoU), which was negotiated in complete secrecy and without input from nongovernmental groups or the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But an unsigned and undated copy of the MoU and its accompanying operational guidelines, obtained over the weekend, provides new details about the plan.

The documents confirm some of the basics of the four-year deal laid out Friday. They say Australia will bear all costs for resettling and supporting the refugees—even flying Cambodian officials to Nauru to meet with eligible families—and that all transfers will be voluntary.

And while neither Cambodian nor Australian officials have said where the refugees will stay in Cambodia, the guidelines state they will be provided temporary accommodation in Phnom Penh “until they have achieved basic Khmer language skills and have passed a medical examination.”

After that, the guidelines say, Australia and Cambodia “will collaborate in finding a location outside of Phnom Penh for the delivery of services for the settlement of refugees.”

“Settlement services” will cover everything from private accommodation to language and job training, business start-up loans, food, clothes, health services and “other” expenses both sides agree to later, the guidelines say.

“Settlement services will be provided for 12 months from the date of departure from temporary accommodations of each refugee,” the guidelines say. “Following the first 12 months, an assessment will be made on a case-by-case basis of any further need for settlement services.”

Mr. Kheng could not be reached Sunday. Sok Phal, director of the interior Ministry’s immigration department, declined to comment.

Denise Coghlan, who heads the Jesuit refugee service in Phnom Penh, said 12 months of assistance was unlikely to be enough for some of the new refugees.

“People who are sick and mentally traumatized, those who cannot find employment, will need basic assistance longer. If the refugees are given a monthly allowance after the year, this should be tapered off over another year so refugees can gradually adjust,” she said.

Ms. Coghlan said the deal was also ambiguous about where the refugees would learn basic Khmer in Phnom Penh, because it only mentions providing “services” outside of the capital, and does not provide specifics about moving them out of the city.

She noted that most of the 60 or so refugees currently living in Cambodia have settled on the outskirts of the capital, and that the new arrivals should not have to face any additional restrictions on where they can live.

“Freedom to resettle where they like seems the best option,” she said.

The MoU and guidelines say services for the refugees will be “commensurate with local community standards” and that the resettled individuals will be provided with the documents they need to find work and send their children to school.

The MoU provides no information on how many refugees Cambodia will take in from Nauru—where just over 200 of the roughly 1,000 asylum seekers there have had their applications for refugee status approved—and leaves the timing up to Cambodia. On Thursday, the interior Ministry’s Mr. Kheng said an initial “pilot project” would see no more than five refugees resettled in the country.

The documents also do not say how much the deal might cost Australia in total.

On Friday, however, Mr. Morrison told the Australian broadcasting Corporation that Australia would be boosting its aid package to Cambodia by $40 million over the four-year span of the refugee deal. According the ABC report, Australian Foreign affairs Minister Julie bishop said the money “will be directed toward enhancing the competitiveness of Cambodian rice exports and the country’s capacity to clear land mines.”

The MoU, however, says some of the additional Australian aid coming Cambodia’s way will go specifically to those communities where the refugees eventually settle.

“The government of Australia will provide additional development assistance within the agreed bilateral development priorities,” it says, “including to ensure benefits to local communities where refugees are settled.”

Optimistically, the MoU also says that Cambodia and Australia will “work closely” with the UNHCR on the deal. The U.N. refugee agency has criticized the plan and says it has “no role” in it. It says the deal is unsustainable and that Australia’s palming off of the refugees to Cambodia sets a dangerous global precedent.

Other critics of the deal say Australia is also breaking its contract with Nauru to find “a third safe country” for the asylum seekers.

The Minority rights Group international said in a statement Sunday that it was “deeply alarmed” by the pending transfer of refugees to Cambodia, “which has a track record of deporting ethnic minorities, including uighurs from China and Montegnards from Vietnam, back to their home countries,” where some of them have been arrested, jailed and sentenced to forced labor.

“Cambodia has repeatedly proven that it is not a safe country for ethnic minorities fleeing persecution,” Mark Lettimer, the London-based group’s executive director, said in the statement.

“The prospect of new asylum seekers or refugees being systematically resettled there from Australia is deeply unsettling.”

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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