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Australia Says Deal to Send More Refugees to Cambodia Still On

Australian officials arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport as the first four refugees from Nauru island landed in Cambodia, June 4, 2015. (Phorn Bopha/VOA Khmer)

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Monday denied a refugee deal with Cambodia had collapsed after Cambodian officials said it did not intend to accept any more refugees from a South Pacific detention center under an agreement.

Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia and Sri Lanka and landing on its shores, instead intercepting boats and shifting the people to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Australia and Cambodia agreed last September that some refugees from Nauru would be resettled in Cambodia in exchange for Australian aid, but only four have arrived since then.

Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sophea told Reuters that they "have no plans to receive more refugees from Nauru." Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop denied the deal had collapsed.

"Cambodia is committed to a regional solution and has committed through a memorandum of understanding with the Australian government to resettle some asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees. Cambodia is an aspiring country, it wishes to increase its GDP, it wishes to harness the skills of foreign workers and in this way, they can resettle people into Cambodia and help boost their GDP," Bishop told reporters in Sydney.

As part of the deal announced last year, Cambodia will get a $40 million ($28.56 million) in additional aid regardless of how many asylum seekers it takes in. A spokesman for Australia opposition, Richard Marles, described the Cambodia deal as "an expensive joke".

The three Iranians and one Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar, who travelled to Cambodia in June under the plan, have been living in a villa in Phnom Penh provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and funded by Australia.

The IOM declined to comment on the Cambodian government's statement, saying the refugees were continuing language training and cultural orientation and had asked for privacy.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that he fully expected the deal to go ahead as planned.

"This is an important agreement and it's an agreement which indicates Cambodia’s readiness to be a good international citizen. As everyone knows, when Cambodia was in trouble some years ago, the world rallied to Cambodia's help. Cambodia is happy, as a good international citizen, to do its part now that it is in much better shape than it was a couple of decades ago," Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

Rights groups have condemned Australia for trying to resettle refugees in poorer countries like Cambodia, which is frequently in the spotlight for human rights abuses and with an economy less than one percent, the size of Australia's.