Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has begun meeting with NGOs and community groups as part of a week-long ‘fact-finding mission’ aimed at investigating Cambodia’s capacity to settle refugees.
Hanson-Young arrived in Phnom Penh on Saturday night after meeting with the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. Both organisations have expressed deep concerns about the deal struck between Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison and his Cambodian counterparts, which would see refugees currently held on Nauru transferred to the South-East Asian Kingdom for final settlement.
One of the groups Hanson-Young met with, The Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, took the South Australian Senator on a tour of the slum areas surrounding the capital Phnom Penh, where it has been suggested refugees would be settled.
In a series of tweets Hanson-Young warned refugees in Cambodia were already living in poor conditions and said the denial of proper documentation was hampering their ability to participate in civic life, for instance by making it impossible to open bank accounts.
“Refugees already living in Phnom Penh say they have no real rights here, no future and are looking for ways to leave,” she tweeted.
“Refugee resettlement means virtually nothing: no citizenship, no id/passport, no family reunion, no sense of belonging.”
The country has previously been criticised for sending 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China where they faced almost certain reprisals, as well as for returning Vietnamese refugees.
When the Cambodia deal was announced, the UNHCR warned it marked a departure from international norms at a time when large numbers of people were being displaced.
"International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. “I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach.”
While the Cambodian-Australian Memorandum of Understanding includes reference to some support services for the refugees who will be settled in Cambodia, such as healthcare, Hanson-Young took aim at one provision which states: “services and treatment will be commensurate with local community standards".
Despite the serious warnings from human rights groups in Australia, Cambodia, and abroad, the Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison savaged Hanson-Young for taking the trip on Monday.
“She has turned up at the wrong time,” he said.
“The on-the-ground arrangements are not in place at the moment and it is still going to be some time before they get in place. So she will go over there, she will whinge and complain like she always does and people will ignore her as they should."
But not everyone will be ignoring the visit.
News of the Cambodia deal has contributed to growing unrest on Nauru, where self-harm and protests escalated after the Memorandum of Understanding was announced.
Australia’s deal with Nauru only allows asylum seekers to remain on the island for five years, in anticipation of their removal to a third country for long-term settlement.
However, keeping refugees on the island for anything close to the full five-year period is starting to look untenable as locals – frustrated by the presence of outsiders – begin to turn violent.
Groups including ChilOut are urgently lobbying the Federal government to have unaccompanied minors on Nauru sent to Australia.
As the pressure to move refugees off Nauru grows it remains unclear whether Cambodia offers a viable short-term solution, let alone a long-term fix. Aside from the immense resources gap, local poverty, and concerns about corruption and refoulement, it has not been established just how many refugees Cambodia is willing to accept, with local reports indicating the number is far below the total currently held on Nauru.
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