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Asean Affairs   29 October, 2014

Protecting Cambodia’s Resettled Asylum Seekers

By Joshua Simonidis

Australia’s immigration minister Scott Morrison and Cambodia’s interior minister Sar Kheng signed a controversial agreement on September 26 to resettle in Cambodia asylum seekers currently detained in Australian offshore facilities.

In exchange for taking on a potentially unlimited number of asylum seekers over an initial four year period, Australia will cover all costs associated with resettlement and integration into Cambodian society. Cambodia will receive $40 million in development aid to enhance its rice exports, support the government’s plans for electoral reform, and help develop domestic mine removal capacity. This new aid will come in addition to the approximately $79 million that Australia will already give for 2014-2015, but Canberra has insisted that it is not a quid pro quo for the resettlement deal.

The agreement itself, which will send asylum seekers determined to be legal refugees to one of the world’s poorest countries, was controversial from inception and its realization ignited international and domestic condemnation. In a press statement released on September 26 the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed its concern over the agreement, saying it could set a precedent for other developed nations to shift their responsibilities toward refugees onto developing countries. The reaction among asylum seekers held in Australia’s detention center on Nauru has been continuous protests with many sewing their lips shut. Since the signing, there have been at least 12 attempts at self-harm, including four suicide attempts.

According to the agreement, resettlement in Cambodia is voluntary, but for many it is a choice between two evils. To not go means to either return to their countries of origin or remain in limbo at the detention center on Nauru in conditions that have been described as “toxic” with refugees staying in crowded army tents that provide little protection from extreme heat and heavy rain. There are also allegations of camp guards sexually abusing both women and children.

The initial agreement signed by Australia and Cambodia is available online but details over how exactly it will be implemented remain vague. Australia will cover all costs related to resettlement, including temporary accommodations in Phnom Penh for one year while refugees receive financial assistance and language and skills training to make them self-reliant before being resettled outside the city. The location of this resettlement area is still to be determined jointly by the Australian and Cambodian governments and has been a point of concern for many.

Measures need to be put in place to protect those who accept relocation to Cambodia. They don’t only need to be educated and assisted in settling down, but kept safe from dangers that may not be immediately apparent. The agreement so far does not guarantee permanent protection to refugees once resettled, and these “reintegration areas” could be in areas where they will be vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.

The U.S. State Department placed Cambodia on the “Tier 2 Watch List” in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, indicating that Cambodia has significant problems with human trafficking, often resulting in either labor or sexual exploitation of trafficked persons.

To address this and other potential dangers most effectively, the Australian and Cambodian governments should reach out to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground in Cambodia, especially those specializing in human trafficking, in order to better evaluate the situation. These organizations have built up expertise and capacities that could be a vital asset in best accommodating these refugees once they have made the decision to move to Cambodia. The two governments can learn how to best protect vulnerable resettled refugees by anticipating the issues that make them vulnerable, and local NGOs have the greatest capacity to assist with that.

Human trafficking is already a prominent issue in Southeast Asia and it should not be allowed to threaten refugees who have already escaped dangers in their home countries only to be detained and then turned away by Australia.

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

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