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Refugee family suffers Cambodian curse

  • 30 May 2014

It had been a long and exhausting journey for the family gathered in the Cambodian office of Jesuit Refugee Service, but their search for a safe environment amidst people who would treat them kindly was not yet over.

Minority Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, the father had been jailed and tortured for having the Koran in his car, and the family — including three young women — had fled together, stumbling blindly along as so many refugees do in the vain hope of putting distance between themselves and danger. Finally, they found themselves in Cambodia, one of only two countries in South East Asia that is a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

But there was one more hoop through which the family would have to jump before their protection could be guaranteed with the granting of refugee status: the eldest girl would have to marry the refugee officer working on their case. For despite Cambodia's official status vis-à-vis refugee rights, in reality it is a country still mired in the corruption and inefficiencies that distinguish developing, post-conflict societies; in truth, it offers few practical safeguards to those who seek its protection.

Nonetheless, it's into this same country that the Australian Government will knowingly, resolutely — proudly, even — send those refugees who have tried to reach its own safe and abundant shores by boat.

It's a decision thoroughly discredited by Australian Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan, who has lived in Cambodia for two decades and who, as the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia, knows better than anyone the extent to which refugees' struggles are perpetuated there. 'Refugee families in Cambodia often live in very hot one-roomed rented places. Employment opportunities are very limited, and employers are reluctant to accept refugee certificates as legal documents that permit the person to be employed,' she says.

'Coming to Siem Reap [where Coghlan lives] you see many tourist hotels, you see the beautiful cultural heritage, but there's also another reality in Cambodia and that is the aftermath of the genocide, the aftermath of robbing people of development aid, the aftermath of being party to a proxy war, to the present reality where the disparity between the rich and the poor is getting bigger and bigger.'

It's a place where refugees' rights are swiftly buried beneath the crushing weight of Cambodia's own, more pressing social problems. Hidden from view are people like the Ahmadi family, who exemplify the damage — both physical