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Fifth refugee transferred to Cambodia from Nauru under $55M resettlement deal

The first four refugees in transit at Kuala Lumpur airport in June 2015. Photo: Kevin Ponniah

By Lindsay Murdoch
November 29, 2015

Australia has secretly transferred a fifth refugee from the tiny Pacific island of Nauru to Cambodia under a controversial $55 million agreement with the impoverished nation.

The Rohingya Muslim man arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, last week, days before the United Nations warned Cambodia's increasingly fractious political situation is pushing the country towards a "dangerous tipping point".

Poor Cambodia: A woman washes herself outside a tiny room where she lives with four other family members off a dank alleyway near the Phnom Penh factory where she works. Photo: Jason South

Rhona Smith, the UN's human rights rapporteur for Cambodia, said increased political infighting has been accompanied by an uptick in rights abuses, including "incidences of violence, intimidation of individuals and resort to offensive language in the political discourse".

Last month two opposition MPs were dragged from vehicles outside parliament and savagely kicked and punched.

The regime of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has revived a seven-year-old defamation case against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, further inflaming tensions.

Cambodia-based Mohammed Ibrahim sought in vain to meet a misidentified "Rohingya" man, who was moved to Phnom Penh from Nauru. Photo: Lindsay Murdoch

Mr Rainsy faces a two-year jail sentence if he returns to the country and has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity.

A spokesman for Cambodia's Interior Ministry and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a multi-nation agency paid by Australia to provide benefits to refugees who arrive in Cambodia from Nauru, confirmed the arrival of the Rohingya man, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refused to comment.

"We will comment on Cambodian resettlement matters as and when appropriate," a spokeswoman told Fairfax Media.

Under Australia's agreement the man is expected to be accommodated in a sprawling luxury villa and be provided with benefits including cash payments, training, health insurance and assistance in setting up a small business.

Only five of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru have agreed to give up their hopes of reaching Australia and take a one-way ticket to one of Asia's poorest nations.

The first group of four refugees arrived in Phnom Penh in June after months of planning at a staggering cost $15 million, on top of $40 million in increased aid that Australia gave Cambodia to sign the agreement.

One of them, a man in his early 20s, was deeply unhappy living in Cambodia and quit the country to return to Myanmar last month.

Fairfax Media revealed on Monday that he was wrongly given refugee status on his claim that he was a Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar, a country that refuses to allow Rohingya to return, describing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Myanmar authorities approved the man returning to Myanmar on the basis he is a Burmese Muslim.

Mr Dutton has declined to comment on the man's wrongful assessment by Australian-trained assessors on Nauru.

Cambodia insists those who agree to resettle from the Pacific island must be genuine refugees fleeing persecution in their own country.

The agreement has been condemned by Cambodia's opposition and human rights and refugee advocates and the UN refugee agency UNHCR washed its hands of the deal that was signed at a champagne-sipping ceremony in Phnom Penh last year.

Mr Dutton flew to Cambodia in September to salvage the agreement after Cambodia had declared it had no plans to resettle any more than the group that arrived in June.

After meetings with Mr Hun Sen and the country's powerful Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, Mr Dutton indicated that more refugees had expressed an interest in moving from Nauru but gave no details.

Refugee advocates say a recent renewed push by Australian officials on Nauru to try to get refugees to take up the Nauru offer was met with hostility.

Despite the enormous cost to Australian taxpayers, the Coalition government has kept its military-style Cambodian operation shrouded in strict secrecy.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said it is critical for refugee advocates to know where refugees are to ensure their protection.

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