by Lisa Cox
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has travelled to Phnom Penh to discuss asylum seekers, the second trip by a Coalition frontbencher to Cambodia in just over a month.
Mr Morrison’s visit is fuelling speculation that Australia will try to strike a deal to resettle refugees in one of south-east Asia’s poorest nations.
After a visit by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in February, it was revealed that the Abbott government wanted to send a small group of asylum seekers to live in the country at a time when its prime minister, Hun Sen, was overseeing a brutal crackdown on dissent.
A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison said that the Minister was “in Cambodia to further discussions on regional co-operation on people smuggling issues, following on from the earlier visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs”.
“Australia has ongoing engagement with countries across our region on strengthening border protection and deterring the illegal movement of people across borders,” she said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in Canberra on Friday that Australia’s talks with Cambodia were about what the two countries could do to crack down on people smuggling.“We’re always talking to our regional partners under the Bali process,” Mr Abbott said.
“People smuggling is a serious regional problem and we like to stay in touch with all of our partners in the Bali process and that’s what this is.”
Mr Abbott said ‘‘whether Cambodia were to accept people is really a matter for Cambodia’’.
“But the point is people smuggling is a regional problem,” he said.
“It needs to be dealt with in a regional way and any support and cooperation that other countries can give to Australia is obviously very welcome.”
The visit comes after the government announced on Thursday that all asylum seekers detained on Manus Island who were found to be refugees would be resettled in Papua New Guinea.
If a deal were to be struck with Cambodia, it would result in asylum seekers being sent to a country that has no social welfare and where 20 per cent of the population live in poverty and 40 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished, according to the World Bank.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused the Abbott government of crawling around the region ‘‘looking for the next poor country to dump’’ refugees.
‘‘No one in their right mind believes that Minister Morrison is doing anything beyond wiping Australia’s hands of our international responsibilities,’’ she told ABC Radio on Friday.