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Will Australia send refugees to Cambodia?

A security guard chases away Buddhist monks from a camp occupied by anti-government demonstrators in Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters

A security guard chases away Buddhist monks from a camp occupied by anti-government demonstrators in Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters

In late February, Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, visited Cambodia to ask if Australia could initially send a small group of asylum seekers to live in Cambodia. Presumably this is a prelude to the establishment of detention centres in Cambodia, like those on Manus Island. During the past four years, Australia, one of its largest aid donors, has provided more than $329 million to Cambodia. On Thursday Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison visited Cambodia supposedly to see what the two countries could do to crack down on people smuggling.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said that Cambodia had no history of accepting asylum seekers in such numbers. If an agreement is reached with Australia, asylum seekers would arrive in a country that has no social welfare and where 20% of the population live in poverty and 40% of children under the age of five are malnourished. Corruption is prominent at all levels and across all sectors in Cambodia, which is ranked by Transparency International at 160 out of 177 countries, alongside Eritrea and Venezuela, and the most corrupt in Southeast Asia. Cambodia is currently home to only 69 UNHCR recognised refugees and 18 asylum seekers so how could they possibly cope with the demands of becoming a recipient of Australia’s refugees?

A member of the Cambodian opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Son Chhay said

Cambodia is not a rich country. We have to find a way to help the refugees. But not to fall under the Australian policies of dumping refugees.

In December 2009, under pressure from China, and despite the objections of the United States and the United Nations, the Cambodian government deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers who had fled a government crackdown in China. The expulsion came one day before Vice President Xi Jinping of China was due to visit Cambodia. China, which is Cambodia’s biggest investor, had branded the Uighurs as criminals and demanded their return.  Two days later China signed 14 deals of loans and grants with Cambodia worth approximately $1 billion.

Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, having been in power since 1985. In July 1997, Hun Sen launched a bloody coup in which his opponents were exiled, arrested, tortured, and in some cases summarily executed. He was reappointed by parliament in September 2013 for a further five-year term. This followed mass demonstrations and came amid a boycott of parliament by the CNRP, which alleged fraud in the July elections. The CNRP said it was cheated out of 2.3 million votes. Despite the claims of irregularities Australia was quick to recognise Hun Sen’s victory. Some Western countries have said his rule has become increasingly authoritarian. Born in 1952, Hun Sen was a member of the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen has said he will rule Cambodia into his seventies.

In January Hun Sen implemented a brutal crackdown on one of the most serious challenges to his three-decade long rule. Four people were killed during a garment worker’s demonstration. Cambodian authorities have banned protests and street marches in Phnom Penh after men in plainclothes wielding steel bars, metal pipes, batons, sticks and axes forcibly cleared hundreds of demonstrators from their rally base in the capital on Saturday. Monks and women were among those chased and beaten, witnesses said. An estimated 600,000 workers in 800 garment and footwear factories had been on strike since 24th December 2013 over a demand to raise the minimum wage to $US160 a month – $US60 higher than the government’s latest offer. The strike had forced many of the factories to halt production. Garments and footwear, including popular brands like Gap, Nike and H&M, are Cambodia’s largest exports and a key source of foreign earnings in the country, which remains one of Asia’s poorest.

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This entry was posted on April 5, 2014 by in Giving and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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