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Cambodians don't want Australia's asylum seekers

Rohingya refugee Mohammed Ibrahim, who sells roti on the streets of Phnom Penh. (Photo: Lindsay Murdoch)

By Lindsay Murdoch
May 2, 2014

Phnom Penh -- The warm roti that Mohammed Ibrahim sells from his cart is popular on the crowded streets of this riverside city, where many people are impoverished.

But by the time he pays bribes to police, he usually has to borrow money at the end of each month to pay the rent on his small room.

"Life is very hard," he says. "I am trying to get to Canada." 

Mr Ibrahim, 32, is one of 68 asylum seekers or refugees living in Cambodia, most of whom are desperate to be relocated to another country. Meanwhile, Australia is negotiating an unprecedented deal with the Cambodian government to send 1000 refugees here from Nauru.

Mr Ibrahim, a Rohingya minority Muslim who fled violence in Myanmar’s Arakan state four years ago, says he cannot get a job as he has no work permit, cannot open a bank account nor send money overseas.

The other day, a shop owner refused to sell a Rohingya friend of his a motor bike, telling him: “I don’t want any problems.”

Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, says Cambodian authorities will have to implement changes to allow any refugees arriving under the Australian agreement to have similar rights to Cambodians, such as being allowed to work and have access to suitable services for their children.

“On the positive side, I think the fact that Cambodia is willing to offer refugees hospitality is much better than the Australians who put them in rubber dinghies and send them back,” she says.

While details of the Australian in principle agreement have not been made public, rights groups, opposition MPs and non-government organisations in Phnom Penh say Cambodia lacks the resources to provide necessary services required by refugees who will be resettled in the country.

“Phnom Penh has not even taken steps to deal with the very serious problem of discrimination and deprivation of rights of ethnic Vietnamese, some of whom have lived in Cambodia for generations yet are still stateless without access to formal education and other basic services,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Why isn’t Cambodia working on that problem first rather than casting about to do a so-called humanitarian favour for Australia?” he asks.

Refugee advocates say most of the 1000 refugees the Abbott government wants to send to Cambodia will refuse to resettle in one of the world’s poorest nations, raising doubts about the effectiveness of the agreement.

“People came to get protection from Australia, why would they go to Cambodia?” asks an asylum seeker from the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, where those slated for Cambodia are in detention.

“It’s not a developed country. It is poor. It cannot look after refugees,” says the man, who is receiving medical treatment at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.

Shane Prince, a Sydney lawyer who represents refugees, says he believes those on Nauru will refuse the Cambodia option “because they will hold out in the hope there is a policy change and they eventually will be able to get to Australia”.

“They also know Cambodia’s troubled history,” he says.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has only two staff in the country, which in the 1970s and '80s saw a huge exodus of its people fleeing war and starvation.

Cambodia has set up a committee to finalise details of the unprecedented Australian deal, which has the backing of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former refugee from the rule of the murderous Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.

“The government agreeing in principle means it is still under study and we will do it in accordance to international standards,” says Ouch Borith, Cambodia’s Secretary of State at the Foreign Ministry. “Because the main important thing is based on volunteer principle without being forced.”

A spokesperson for Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison would not comment on whether the agreement would allow asylum seekers to refuse to go to Cambodia and to stay in Nauru, where, if deemed to be genuine refugees, they would be given accommodation and initial support services and be able to live in the Nauru community for up to five years.

“The government is continuing its discussions on these issues and welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date,” the spokesperson said.

Virak Ou, chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, has led the criticism of the agreement, accusing Australia of irresponsibly exporting its own problem.

“We mistreated our own people and have failed to protect the human rights of our own people ... we don’t have the capacity or the will,” he says. “There’s no reason for Australia to believe that Cambodia will protect the rights of refugees, which to me is very irresponsible of Australia.”

Rights groups say Cambodia has a record of playing politics with refugees and using them as bargaining chips in bilateral relations, pointing to the deportation of 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China in 2009. Beijing announced a $1 billion aid package for Phnom Penh two days later.

“It’s a fact that Cambodia has neither the financial nor technical resources to provide necessary services required by refugees who would be resettled in Cambodia,” says Mr Robertson.

Mr Ibrahim’s story is typical of the asylum seekers languishing in Australian-run detention centres in Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

He almost perished during a 16-day ordeal on a boat before being detained inThailand and finally paying a smuggler to reach Cambodia, where he had been told it would be easier to be gain refugee status in the hope of migrating to another country.

But the Phnom Penh office of the High Commissioner for Refugees was downsized in 2009, leaving Cambodian authorities to handle asylum seeker applications.

They took 3½ years to declare Mr Ibrahim an asylum seeker, leaving him in a limbo where he relied on support from the Jesuit service.

“I couldn’t have survived without the help of the Jesuit service staff,” he says.

Mr Ibrahim, who uses a second name when speaking with the media to avoid getting into trouble with Cambodian authorities, has since being declared a refugee, allowing him to negotiate possible relocation to a third country.

Asked what he thinks about the unprecedented Australian deal, he says he doesn’t believe refugees will come to Cambodia if they have a choice.

“Cambodia is not ready," he says. "It is a very poor country that faces many difficulties caring for its own people.”

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