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Cash for refugees shames both Australia and Cambodia

  • 23 October 2014

Cambodia's agreement with Australia to receive refugees from Nauru is moving to implementation, with Cambodian officials soon to visit Nauru. It has also been widely criticised, and refugees on Nauru have protested against it.

?The urgency with which the Australian Government has pursued the agreement is politically motivated. Many asylum seekers on Nauru have been found to be refugees. Nauru is in no position to accept them into the community, and is unwilling to hold indefinitely those found to be refugees. The PNG Government is likely to adopt the same stance. The difficulty for the Australian Government lies in its declaration that none will be resettled in Australia. Cambodia is the circuit breaker that will allow Australia to save face.

The agreement has attracted strong criticism, including from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which refused to be a co-signatory. Critics have argued that it breaches Australia’s responsibility to provide protection for refugees. It is an exercise not of responsibility sharing for refugees but of burden shifting, from a wealthy to an impoverished nation. Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Convention, built on a universal respect for human dignity, has been betrayed. In its place has been placed a price setting mechanism for people whom nations want to dump elsewhere.

Many parallels have been adduced. It has been described as a return to the transportation policy by which Australia was first settled. It has been seen as the reverse of the common surrogacy agreement by which a poor Asian woman is paid to bear a child for a wealthier Australian woman. Here a poor Asian country agrees is paid to rear the abused children of wealthy Australia.

?The agreement itself does provide some benefits for refugees. But they are limited, falling short of full protection. And experience suggests that the promises made in them will not be expeditiously delivered.

?The positive features are that Cambodia will accept only refugees who go there voluntarily. They will be given recognition, and are guaranteed identity cards and residence certificates, have health insurance for five years, have been guaranteed freedom of movement and right to travel documents, be given a resettlement package, able to be reunited with families, and have a right to permanent resettlement.

?The limitations on these benefits, and so the threat to human dignity, come partly from Cambodian law dealing with resident aliens, partly from political considerations, and partly from the under resourcing of Cambodian administration.