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Little Information on Eve of Australia Refugee Deal

Australian Customs officer lowered a life boat with Sri Lankan refugees from Oceanic Viking, an Australian Customs Service patrol ship for bring transported to an Australian-funded detention center in Tanjung Pinang, file photo.

Cambodian officials have released very little information regarding an impending controversial deal with Australia to take in refugees who had sought to settle there but are in a detention facility in the South Pacific nation of Nauru.

Sar Kheng, the Minister of Interior, told reporters Thursday that Cambodia will take “four or five” refugees “only as a test” in the near future, but he gave no further information.

Nearly 1,000 refugees, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, are being held in a facility in Nauru.

Sar Kheng is expected to meet with Scott Morrison, Australia’s Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, on Friday to sign an agreement.

“There is no information about this,” Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Thursday that the transfer “puts refugees at risk” and should not go through.

“Australia’s deal with Cambodia will send people to a country that has a terrible record for protecting refugees and is mired in serious human rights abuses,” Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch Australia director, said in a statement. “Australia should have examined these refugee claims itself instead of diverting asylum seekers to Nauru, but at least it should take those found to be refugees instead of shipping them off to Cambodia. Despite Canberra’s claims, the reality is Cambodia is both unsafe and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees who will be given one-way tickets to Phnom Penh.”

Amnesty International called the deal “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.”

“This agreement is putting the short-term political interests of the Australian government ahead of the protection of some of the world's most vulnerable people – refugees,” Rupert Abbott, deputy Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “It makes Cambodia complicit in Australia’s human rights breaches and seriously flawed offshore processing system.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has criticized the agreement as “not in the spirit of resettlement.” And Cambodia has in the past returned asylum seekers to their own countries, such as it did with Uighur minorities from China in December 2009.

“Cambodia has not demonstrated the willingness or ability to provide refugees adequate protection,” Human Rights Watch said. “Some recognized refugees resettled in Cambodia live in fear and self-isolation because the Cambodian government has shown a willingness to collude with countries of origin to have refugees returned, despite their status. As a result, refugees may be afraid to leave their places of residence, preventing them from working and reducing them to severe poverty.”