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First Refugees From Nauru To Arrive Thursday

Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng signs an MOU on Friday sept 26 with Australia Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to resettle refugees in Cambodia.

The first four asylum seekers moving to Cambodia from the South Pacific island of Nauru will arrive Thursday, part of a controversial resettlement deal with Australia.

The refugees, including one Rohingya from Myanmar and three Iranians, are the first of about 1,000 expected eventually to arrive.

They will spend about six months in Phnom Penh, learning the Khmer language and other skills, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday.

The Australian government had offered $30 million in aid to Cambodia as part of the deal, and last week it announced an additional $12 million for the resettlement plan.

The Australian government has rented a 2,400-square-meter villa complex for them in the capital’s Chbar Ampov district, Khieu Sopheak said.

Kem Sarin, head of the refugee office at the Ministry of Interior, said last week a “pilot project” for refugees will help them adjust to life in Cambodia, including language, culture and traditions.

But the broader deal has been widely criticized, especially considering how Cambodia has treated other asylum seekers in the past. Only about a dozen refugee Montagnards from Vietnam, for example, have had their documents processed, even though more than 50 of them are believed to have crossed into the country in recent months seeking refuge. In 2009, Cambodia expelled a group of Uighur refugees to China, despite their pleas for asylum.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said Cambodia is not ready to take in refugees. “Cambodia is still sending its own people to work abroad, because work here is still limited,” he said.

Accepting the Nauru refugees while turning away others “makes people see that Cambodia wants that $40 million,” he said.

Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, has been deeply critical of the deal. “The Australian government is trying to pay Cambodia to take some refugees off its hands and its conscience,” Elaine Pearson, Australia director for the group, said in a statement. “This isn’t a solution, but rather a business deal at the expense of some very vulnerable people.”