Did Cambodian officials pocket Australia’s $55 million refugee aid?

Photo; Takver/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Dung Phan

A $55 million deal between Australia and Cambodia to settle refugees has failed, say senior government figures. Since the agreement in 2014,  just five people have moved to Cambodia; four of which have chosen to return to their homelands.

Like many others taking risks to reach Australian shores, these five asylum seekers were initially hoping for a better life. Instead, they now live in Cambodia, where healthcare, poverty rates, crime and discrimination can be very similar to their countries of origin.

A failed deal

The Australian government believes their “Pacific Solution” is the answer to their reluctance to accept large numbers of arriving asylum seekers. But so far Cambodia is the only country that has agreed to accept permanent arrivals from the detention centres. They have received $15m in resettlement costs and been offered an additional $40m in aid as an inducement to sign up to the deal. At a cost of $55m, the programme has resettled one person.

In April, Cambodia’s top government spokesman Phay Siphan admitted that the deal between the two countries has failed. Phnom Penh claimed that the impoverished country did not have the social programmes to support refugees. Phay says the country, “doesn’t have social services like ultra-modern governments,” contradicting the Australian officials portrayal of Cambodia as a land with plenty of job opportunities and no violent crime.

Meanwhile, the deal has not been received well by the Cambodian public. Following its announcement, riot police had to keep watch outside Australia’s embassy in Phnom Penh as 100 local protestors rallied that the government was unable to take care of its own people, let alone additional refugees. Some even feared that the Australian aid money would end up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

And it is likely that they were right. Mohammed Roshid, the last refugee to accept Cambodian resettlement, was told in June that he would soon be cut off from receiving help. He said he hoped for a better life in his new country but ended up being sick and frustrated by the poor medical treatment that he received from the resettlement programme.

“A classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor”

The refugee arrangement has been controversial and widely criticised because of constant allegations of human rights abuses, and the Cambodia’s poor record of dealing with refugees. Rhona Smith, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, also noted that the country’s political instability had increased rights abuses, including “incidents of violence, intimidation of individuals, and resort to offensive language in the political discourse.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, criticised the Cambodian government for taking advantage of these aid programmes. “It was a classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor, get the money upfront but don’t concede the operational control over the project – and then stall or obfuscate until you get the outcome you want, which in this case was only a handful of refugees,” he said.

A win-win deal

Despite the controversy and inefficiency of the resettlement programmes, the Australian Ambassador and Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister recently reaffirmed the two countries’ commitment to the arrangement. If nothing else it can be a test case for similar plans with other developing nations in the future.

However, the deal does leave questions of what will happen to any refugees arriving in Cambodia from Nauru in the future. The latest evidence shows Australia will no longer condemn human rights abuses where asylum seekers are concerned.

“The fact that the number of serious incidents has not declined but continued steadily, and in some cases escalated, is further proof that the failure to address abuses is a deliberate policy of the Australian government to deter further boat arrivals,” said Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch. “Australia’s policy of deterrence is premised on making people in offshore locations suffer.”

Australia’s $55 million bill for the Cambodia deal sends a dangerous message. If you come to Australia by boat, you will either end up in misery in detention centres like Nauru, or be chasing lost dreams in Cambodia like Mohammed Roshid.