Human Rights / Immigration / News

Cambodia Is No Place to Resettle the Refugees Australia Does Not Want

by Susan Metcalfe  /   The Guardian

Cambodian refugees get out from a truck at Sra Em village after leaving Preah Vihear temple where Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rifle and rocket fire in 2009. Photograph: Chor Sokunthea/Reuters

Cambodian refugees get out from a truck at Sra Em village after leaving Preah Vihear temple where Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rifle and rocket fire in 2009. Photograph: Chor Sokunthea/Reuters

In proposing to resettle Australia’s refugees in third countries, the Australian government is turning the humanitarian process of refugee resettlement into a politically motivated form of refugee deterrence.

The Cambodian government this week agreed in principle to resettle some of Australia’s refugees from Nauru. But the small number of refugees already in Cambodia face serious problems, including difficulty finding work because of language barriers and discrimination, lack of access to citizenship, and a corrupted legal system that fails to protect their rights. The conditions are so challenging that most hold out hope for future resettlement in a country like Australia.

Of most concern has been Cambodia’s willingness to deport refugees back to a place of potential harm. In 2009, Cambodia violated international law when it forcibly repatriated 20 Uighur refugees, including two children, to China. China publicly thanked Cambodia for the deportation before signing up to trade deals worth around US $850m.

UNHCR’s Vivian Tan says resettlement in third countries is meant to provide both protection and long term solutions for refugees only when they are “not available in the host country”. Tan says moving refugees to countries where rights are reduced, or where relocation is an attempt by a refugee convention state “to divest itself of its responsibility”, goes against the spirit of resettlement.

Those granted refugee status in Papua New Guinea (PNG) will receive visas with “work rights and freedom of movement”, but no other details have been made available. A PNG expert panel is due to report back this week with recommendations on resettlement arrangements, but even with provision of basic assistance to be paid for by Australia, the challenges for refugees will be enormous.

Back in October 2012, the then-UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle voiced alarm at the lack of durable solutions for refugees in PNG. He warned that Port Moresby –the location for most “out-of region refugees” –was “a very dangerous and expensive place for people to live”. After a visit to Manus Island in October 2013, UNHCR again raised concerns about the “severe limitations” of finding safe, long term solutions for non-Melanesian refugees. UNHCR noted that refugees in PNG had previously been relocated to third countries, including Australia.

Dumping refugees in under-resourced, aid dependent countries can have disastrous consequences for all involved. Only a well developed resettlement program, coupled with a supportive and safe environment, can address the long term needs of both the refugee and the resettlement country.

Pathways for integration into local communities should be offered. Communities need to be inclusive and welcoming of new arrivals. Resettlement is about providing education, medical services, specialist torture and trauma counselling when necessary, access to work (not just work permits), language classes, interpreting services and ultimately, citizenship. Initial support should include orientation programs and assistance to find housing and work.

A recent article on the PNG Edge website reports that only one province in PNG has put up its hand to resettle Australia’s refugees. The governor of West New Britain is reportedly open to refugees working there in the palm oil industry. Another report claims refugees who refuse PNG resettlement will be handed back to the Australian government to “deal with”.

Using resettlement as a strategy for deterring refugees is reckless and harmful to all involved. Australia has the capacity to accommodate many more refugees, and we have particular obligations to those who have arrived seeking our help. Refugees should be returned to Australia and assisted to begin new lives here, free from fear and future uncertainty.


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