PHNOM PENH —
It has been two months since Cambodia received its first group of refugees under a controversial deal with Australia. But while Cambodian officials say they won’t take any more refugees for now, Australia says the deal has not fallen through.
The deal has been controversial from the start, with many in the rights community saying Australia is violating the spirit of international agreements in paying Cambodia to take the refugees, especially considering Cambodia’s own poverty and poor human rights record.
The four refugees, who arrived from the South Pacific island of Nauru in June, have been handed over to the International Organization for Migration, which is helping them resettle, Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said.
They are learning Khmer and “doing great,” but they have not been released to live on their own, or to “integrate.” Until that happens, Cambodia will not take more refugees, he said.
However, Khieu Sopheak was quoted in the Cambodia Daily recently saying Cambodia does not have plans for more. “The less we receive the better,” he was quoted saying.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the deal is still ongoing. “We anticipate over time that more people will be resettled in Cambodia,” she told reporters in Sydney. Australia is sending a message to human smugglers who have “duped” people into believing they will be resettled there, she said.
The refugees—three Iranians and a Rohingyan—arrived in June following a deal in September. The Guardian and other media outlets have reported that Australia gave Cambodia $55 million as part of the deal, but Khieu Sopheak said no money has been exchanged. “We do this for the sake of charity,” he said. Australia has provided its typical aid, he said, “but there is no money regarding the refugees.”
He told VOA Khmer the government is not considering taking more refugees. “In short, now we do not have a plan to bring more in,” he said. That will happen only after the four currently in Cambodia are able to integrate. “They are still learning the culture. After that we’ll get them places to settle.”