Cambodia's patchy refugee record


Cambodia is used to receiving large numbers of people. In 1992, 250,000 people returned from refugee camps in Thailand. It took over a year. In the last week trucks have ferried up to 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers back to their home provinces. They feared that the military regime in Thailand would use force against them.

Those returning will now join the many Cambodians living in poverty and trying to survive. And if Australia has its way, they will be joined by asylum seekers sent there by the Australian Government which has refused to consider their claims. Like other refugees they will face formidable obstacles to building a life in Thailand.

Cambodia signed up to the United Nations Convention of the Status of Refugees in 1992 when it was under United Nations administration. Since then about 5000 people have applied for asylum in Cambodia.

They have come from the same broad range of countries from which people have sought protection in Australia on the grounds of persecution. Initially UNHCR adjudged the claims for refugee status. Jesuit Refugee Service helped people prepare their claims and offered social assistance.

In 2009 Cambodia enacted its own laws concerning refugees. Asylum seekers have to register with the Refugee Office, which then makes decisions about protection and hears any appeals. Before their case is decided they are given temporary permission to stay in Cambodia. They may live freely in the community but are not allowed to work. If they are found to be refugees they are given a prakas that allows them to stay legally in Cambodia. Those found not to be refugees must return to their own countries.

The situation of people who are found to be refugees continues to be very precarious. The prakas is not accepted as a proof of identity by most employers, businesses and banks. In practice a resident card is required. But so far no refugee has been given one. Without their resident card they cannot apply for citizenship. So they have little chance of building a new life for themselves and for their children. What support they may need for their daily living will come from such agencies as UNHCR and Jesuit Refugee Service.

It is little wonder that more than half the people who have been found to be refugees since 1995 have sought and found resettlement in other nations. Few have remained in Cambodia.

The sense of insecurity of those seeking to remain in Cambodia is understandable. They remember that in 1995 the Cambodian Government deported to China at gun point 29 Uighurs who sought protection. This action, which took place days after Cambodia passed laws protecting refugees, was a flagrant breach of the fundamental UNHCR commitment not to return people to places where they face persecution.

Given the poverty of Cambodia, the difficulty refugees face in making a life there, and the precariousness of their position, why would a wealthy nation like Australia want to palm off to Cambodia people who have come to Australia to make their claims for protection? How can it seriously declare this to be part of a regional solution designed to share the burden of receiving asylum seekers when Cambodia is now coping with close to 200,000 of its own 'refugees' returning from Thailand?

If Australia sends these refugees to Cambodia, it is morally responsible for their protection and wellbeing. In a country battling issues of poverty, displacement, unemployment and corruption, and which is still rebuilding after decades of war, this is no simple task. Australia is more than capable and infinitely better resourced to welcome the people who arrive seeking Australian protection.

To those outside Australia it seems unjust, unneighbourly and devoid of compassion to push persecuted and vulnerable people out the front door or off the front shore. Those living inside Cambodia will ask how these vulnerable people despatched so disrespectfully by Australia will live.


Denise CoghlanSr Denise Coghlan rsm is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, and had worked with Cambodians in refugee camps and in Cambodia for thirty years.

Topic tags: Denise Coghlan, Cambodia



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Australia cannot simply trade humans in this way no matter how often the pollies claim they can. This country is beyond disgraceful.

Marilyn | 24 June 2014  

Well done, Denise.

Name | 24 June 2014  

Thanks Denise for this research and your knowledge of the reality of what Australia will be doing if they off-load asylum seekers to Cambodia. The question is, why do so many Australians seem blind to the ramifications of such a policy?

Ellen | 24 June 2014  

Please send Julie Bishop and her team to live in Cambodia, in the rice field with the farmer.

Kim | 24 June 2014  

Concerns about plans to send asylum-seekers to Cambodia may well be unfounded. Very few of them are ever likely to end up there. If offered the choice to do so by the Australian government most will simply return to their own countries. This would be an easy decision for them to make because about 90% are economic migrants and they are likely to be paid anything from $1500 to $10,000 by the government to return home. They didn’t scrap together about $30,000 or more to start a new life in a wealthy Western country like Australia to simply end up in another Third World country little better than their own. The same applies to those asylum-seekers supposedly destined for PNG. Few are likely to end up there for the same reasons, especially considering the hostility that most PNGs have towards them. The Abbott, like the Rudd government, knows this. Offering to resettle asylum-seekers in third countries whether PNG or Cambodia is simply a sop to appease the AS lobby and the UNHCR. The money saved by asylum-seekers not choosing to go to Cambodia or PNG could then be re-allocated to resettle Cambodian and other refugees who really do need our help.

Dennis | 25 June 2014  

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