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Asean Affairs   May 26, 2014

Australia’s Cambodia Solution Is No Solution At All

By Benjamin Schaare

Australia has tried many solutions to stop asylum seekers from entering its territory illegally. In the past few months, the Australian and Cambodian governments have been in talks to resettle a number of asylum seekers currently held on Christmas Island and Nauru as refugees in Cambodia. Despite an outcry from civil society groups, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen confirmed the deal on May 20, and Australia indicated the agreement was nearing completion two days later. The United States has so far been largely silent on the issue.

The idea of a foreign option to resolve the problem of asylum seekers trying to enter Australia illegally has a storied past. Between 2001 and 2007, Canberra employed the “Pacific solution,” sending asylum seekers to detention centers on the remote Pacific islands of Nauru, Christmas Island, and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea rather than allowing them onto Australian soil. The policy received bipartisan political support, but attracted criticisms from human rights groups. This policy was abandoned in 2007, but the Pacific detention centers remained in use. Australia also looked to Malaysia for help in thwarting refugee arrivals to Australia. The proposed deal would have seen Australia exchange asylum seekers for processed refugees with Malaysia. However, the Australian High Court in 2011 ruled the plan illegal, and the policy was never implemented.

Australia has consistently taken a hard line on illegal immigrants. The government has justified its policy of resettling asylum seekers in third countries on humanitarian grounds. Almost 1,400 asylum seekers have drowned trying to reach Australia since 2001, and successive governments have argued that strict border policies would ultimately save lives by dissuading people smugglers from making the sea voyages in the first place. The “Cambodia solution” however, could be problematic for several reasons. Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long expressed concerns about fundamental human rights problems in Cambodia. It ranked 138 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index and has a GDP per capita of only $944. Cambodia offers few opportunities for refugees to improve their living conditions. But Australia’s immigration minister Scott Morrison, who visited the country in April, said he hopes to encourage public debate about what asylum seekers can expect from host countries. According to Morrison, the assumption that resettlement should result in an improvement in the economic situation of refugees is false.

What will the Cambodian government get in return for hosting refugees? Additional foreign aid is likely, although Canberra has been mum on whether Cambodia will be granted more than the $79 million it is already expecting in exchange for settling refugees. Foreign aid currently makes up fifty percent of the Cambodian government’s budget. But in an effort to justify the arrangement on a moral basis, Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong said, “In the past, there have been Cambodians going out as refugees to different countries. Now perhaps it is time for Cambodia to receive refugees back to Cambodia.”

Australia’s plan to resettle refugees in Cambodia could complicate U.S. policy in Cambodia, and Washington should articulate its concerns in private discussions with Canberra.

An influx of refugees could have negative implications for stability in Cambodia. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been struggling to hold talks on political reforms with the opposition since last July’s elections, while violent labor protests have plagued the country since January. Refugees arriving in Cambodia with no language skills and few economic prospects could further strain the uneasy political situation there, despite Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop’s claim that Cambodia wants refugees to “help rebuild the nation,” as it continues to recover fromits earlier civil war.

Second, the Cambodian government does not have a good track record of managing foreign aid. By throwing its support behind the Hun Sen government, Australia risks undermining the extensive U.S. efforts to promote human rights and good governance in the country.

While Australia may feel it is running out of options with regards to asylum seekers, its proposed Cambodia solution is not an ideal solution for Australia, Cambodia, or asylum seekers themselves.

Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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