PHNOM PENH —
Two months after Cambodia received its first group of asylum seekers from Australia as part of a controversial resettlement deal, a Cambodian government official has said the refugees are “very happy” in their new homes.
Four refugees arrived in Cambodia in early June, and are being provided orientation, health care and education, and employment services by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
How they fair in the country will likely decide the future of the resettlement program, which has drawn vociferous criticism from human rights campaigners who argue that Australia is neglecting its responsibilities by dumping refugees on an underdeveloped nation.
The IOM’s office in Phnom Penh did not respond to requests for comment about the refugees’ progress, and the organization has declined to facilitate reporters’ access to the refugees.
However, the spokesman for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, Khieu Sopheak, said last week that the four are beginning to settle into their new homes in eastern Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district.
The refugees, who come from Iran and Myanmar, are already learning the Khmer language and beginning to acclimatize to Cambodia, he said.
“The IOM, the Australia embassy and us [the Cambodian government] help [look after] them,” Mr. Sopheak said. “They are very happy. They go to markets like Aeon [shopping mall].”
Each refugee has everything they need, and enough food to eat, he added. “When they go out, there are people accompanying them. They can also go to karaoke,” he said.
However, Mr. Sopheak said that the four were still far from “integrated” into Cambodian society, explaining that the government would only consider accepting more refugees once they had become so.
“We have to wait for the four refugees to integrate first,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the local rights group Licadho, said that resettling refugees in Cambodia was inappropriate given the country’s own poor record on human rights.
“The government should solve the human rights issue in the country first,” he said, adding that Cambodia was also facing other problems like a shortage of good jobs and widespread displacement of people in rural areas. “We are not able to help ourselves yet, we have to help ourselves first.”
Additionally, Am Sam Ath pointed out that Cambodia has itself refused to give asylum to people from the Montagnard ethnic minority in Vietnam, hundreds of whom have crossed the border since last year fleeing alleged persecution at home.
The resettlement program followed a deal last year that saw Australia pledge a reported $32 million in extra aid to Cambodia, in exchange for taking some of the thousands of rejected asylum seekers that are currently residing in offshore detention centers.
Tony Abbott’s conservative government has enforced a strict policy of not accepting people arriving illegally in Australia by boat. Thousands of refugees are instead sent either to Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where they are held in centers where access for media and monitoring groups has been severely restricted.
The United Nations has expressed deep concern over the Cambodia deal—which could see as many as 1,000 refugees eventually resettled to Cambodia—calling it a “worrying departure from international norms.”
The three Iranians and one Rohingya from Myanmar are the first batch of refugees to accept a deal to settle in Cambodia.
They have all been settled in a large guarded compound with high walls in what appears to be new, high-quality housing.
Sophat, 62, a vendor selling soft drinks nearby, told VOA Khmer that the refugees, who leave the compound often, “seem happy.”
“One man often comes out and walks past my place to buy cigarettes,” she said of one of the refugees, a member of the stateless and oppressed Rohingya minority, thousands of whom have fled from their homes in western Myanmar in recent years. “He comes out every day.”