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Cambodia Defends Refugee Deal with Australia

Cambodia, Australia Sign Contentious Refugee Deal
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Cambodia says aid money from Australia was not a factor in its decision to accept asylum seekers currently living in a detention center on the Micronesian island of Nauru.

In an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer in New York late Sunday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said it is time for Cambodia to give back on the issue of refugees.

“The reason that we take [the refugees] is that when Cambodia had wars, for nearly 30 years, especially under the Khmer Rouge regime, there were Cambodian brothers and sisters fleeing to many countries. For example, to reside in the U.S. As far as I know there are about 300,000 [Cambodians living in the U.S.]," he said. "And [there are also a lot] in France, the European Union, Australia and Canada. So Cambodia's government, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, understands it’s time for Cambodia to show the world it is ready to take the refugees in a humanitarian manner.”

He added Phnom Penh is taking in the refugees because it wants to be helpful, not because of the millions of dollars in aid money recently promised by Canberra.

The Cambodian foreign minister added that Phnom Penh talked to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, before agreeing to accept the refugees.

However, UNHCR chief António Guterres this month expressed deep concern over the deal, saying in a statement the agreement is a “worrying departure from international norms."

Cambodian officials said Monday that the first group of asylum seekers from Nauru will arrive as early as the end of this year, resettling first in Phnom Penh for at least a year.

Long Visalou, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that the refugees would stay in the capital only temporarily.

“I just want to underline that they will live outside Phnom Penh, not the provisional center in Phnom Penh. We will put them in the provisional center in Phnom Penh when they arrive," he said.

He added the capital has “too many people already,” and the refugees will need land and jobs.

Long Visalou said that Australia will provide funding for vocational training, Khmer language lessons and health care for the first five years of the resettlement, as well as for developing a relocation area where they can live. He did not provide a specific number of refugees.

Cambodia and Australia signed an agreement on the resettlement Friday. Details have been scarce, including how many refugees, mostly from the Middle East and South Asia, will ultimately come to Cambodia.

Rights groups have criticized the arrangement as a poor policy for Australia and a bad deal for refugees, who will arrive in a developing country where resources are already taxed.

Ou Virak, board president for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says Cambodia has not thought through the program well enough. A year of language training and a little vocational training “is not enough,” he said.

“The government may think that for about a year or so those refugees will volunteer to go back to their home countries. But they actually are from Arab [countries], the Middle East, the area facing wars, terrorism and other problems. So, if we expect that they will go back to their home countries, that’s not going to be possible," he said.

He added that it will take quite sometime for the refugees to become comfortable and productive in Cambodia, saying he needed more than five years of support when he himself lived as a refugee in the United States.

(This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service. Kong Sothanarith reported from Phnom Penh and Sok Khemara reported from New York.)