Refugees Face Tough Times if Australia Deal Inked

On a busy street corner behind O’Russei market in Phnom Penh, a man meticulously prepared one piece of roti flatbread after another at his spotless food cart on Friday as his cousin took orders.

But his journey to this nondescript street corner, where his golden rotis are lightly drizzled with condensed milk and dusted with chocolate powder, was a difficult one, spanning several years.

A Rohingya Muslim refugee makes roti at his food cart on Friday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
A Rohingya Muslim refugee makes roti at his food cart on Friday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

He and his cousin, both Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, arrived in 2010 after a turbulent year spent in Thailand. Although they gained refugee status here late last year, life has been anything but easy in a country poorly equipped to deal with such citizens.

“Am I happy?” said the refugee, who asked to remain anonymous due to his sensitive situation. “Every day I am facing problems with the local community and also the local authorities. I am paying a lot of money, both to the authorities and for this place on the street.”

“There are so many difficulties,” he said of life here. “It’s not easy.”

Seemingly little things, such as going to the bank to withdraw money or buying a mobile phone SIM card, can be monumental tasks for him, because the only documentation he has is a refugee certificate. Given the choice, he would resettle immediately. A sponsorship opportunity has arisen in Canada, but he has yet to hear back.

A similar fate likely awaits those who may end up here if a supposedly imminent deal between the Australian and Cambodian governments is inked, which would see refugees currently being detained on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru resettled in Cambodia.

Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), held a meeting on Friday to raise concerns about the pending deal. With no government body tasked with caring for refuges and few resources available to incoming refugees, it became clear during the meeting how much asylum seekers and refugees here rely on JRS to get settled in the country.

In addition to paperwork, JRS helps new refugees with other essentials, such as finding accommodation, navigating the market, Khmer lessons and providing loans—the latter of which helped the Rohingya refugee set up this roti stall.

“We always advocate for refugees, but would never say we have enough money to support refugees,” Sister Coghlan said of the NGO’s capacity to help with the coming deal with Australia.

“A lot of money will change hands [between the governments]. The money is supposed to go for the direct costs of bringing people here…and development projects in the communities in which the refugees settle.

“We don’t know if the deal has been signed already—it’s so secret. We don’t know when or how many refugees will come. We don’t know how much money has been given. The person from Australia who’s going to be in charge of all this started work at the embassy the day before yesterday. So it looks as if some things are fairly imminent,” she added.

Back at the roti stand, the prediction was bleak for those who are set to leave Nauru for Cambodia.

“I think Cambodia is not helpful for any refugees or asylum seekers…. Cambodia is a very poor country to make money and to survive is very difficult,” he said.

“The Australian government is paying money, and the Cambodian government wants to take it.”

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