Australia remains committed to refugee resettlement in Cambodia despite 'concern for democracy'

Australia remains committed to refugee resettlement in Cambodia despite 'concern for democracy'

Australia remains committed to refugee resettlement in Cambodia despite 'concern for democracy'

Updated 6 December 2017, 12:30 AEDT

Australia says it will continue to offer Cambodia as a resettlement option for refugees on Nauru, despite Canberra's own concerns about the authoritarian slide of the kingdom under the prime ministership of Hun Sen.

Australia will continue to offer Cambodia as a resettlement option for refugees on Nauru, despite Canberra's own concerns about the authoritarian slide of the kingdom.

Key points:

  • Australian Government will continue to offer Cambodia as resettlement option despite own statements of concern
  • Human Rights Watch says Australia's statements appear to undermine its refugee policy
  • ASEAN parliamentarians raise concerns about Cambodia's "slide into dictatorship"

Cambodia's military chief has vowed to "smash the teeth" of anyone who does not support Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said it would be worth sacrificing 200 lives to stay in power after 32 years.

Hun Sen will effectively run unopposed in elections next year after a court dissolved the main opposition party and police detained its leader.

"Settlement in Cambodia remains an option for Nauru-determined refugees," a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said.

"It is voluntary and a matter for individual refugees to consider."

The Australian Government is sticking with Cambodia as a safe place for refugees to resettle, despite its own statements of concern about the crackdown on political rights and other basic freedoms.

"We remain deeply concerned with the series of troubling actions taken by the Cambodian Government, including reduced access to free media, increased actions against civil society and the dissolution of Cambodia's main opposition party," a DFAT spokesman said on November 28.

"These developments have serious implications for democracy in Cambodia."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Australia's statements on human rights appeared to undermine its refugee policy.

"The Australian Government has expressed concern about this and yet we know that refugees who are fleeing persecution, what they need is safety, they don't need to be sent to a country that is facing a human rights crisis," the Australia director for HRW, Elaine Pearson, said.

'Australian public has the right to know'

The Australian Government has refused to confirm how many refugees are still part of the $55 million program.

In May there were three — a Rohingya man and two Syrian men.

"We will not release personal or other details relating to those who volunteer to take up settlement in Cambodia," a spokesman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) said.

Follow-up requests for information went unanswered by DIBP.

"It seems like anything these days that deals with refugees and asylum seekers offshore is being treated like a matter of national security and quite frankly that's not good enough," Ms Pearson said.

"The Australian public has the right to know when tens of millions of dollars of Australian taxpayer money is being used to prop up a Government that is engulfed in a human rights crisis for less than a dozen people so far."

The ABC has been told by a source with knowledge of refugee issues in Cambodia that the three men are still in Cambodia.

The Rohingya man, Mohammed Roshid, was described as "not so happy" and appeared visibly distressed when interviewed by the ABC last year.

The Syrians are still waiting for the Australian Government to fulfil its promise of family reunification, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At least four other refugees took up the Cambodia offer but later decided to return to the countries they fled.

DFAT told the ABC the $40 million in aid offered to seal the resettlement deal is being spent over four years on existing programs, including rice production and landmine clearance.

DFAT referred questions about the $15.5 million given to the International Organisation of Migration to care for refugees to the DIBP, which did not respond to the question.

Hun Sen headlines prayer usually led by the king

Any new refugees taking up Australia's offer of a new life in Cambodia will find a developing country in the midst of harsh crackdown.

Emboldened by Chinese money and political support, Prime Minister Hun Sen has shrugged off the facade of democracy and human rights, revealing a man determined to retain power at any cost.

On Saturday, the former Khmer Rouge commander staged an elaborate prayer ceremony in front of Angkor Wat to give thanks for "peace and stability" in the country, complete with traditional dancers, thousands of monks and Government cronies.

The ancient ritual is usually reserved for the king, but it was Hun Sen who took centre stage, not King Sihamoni.

Hun Sen's attack against the political opposition, media and civil society comes after local elections in June suggested Cambodia was turning against his ruling party.

As well as dissolving the opposition party, Hun Sen has had its leader, Kem Sokha, arrested for alleged treason, based on comments made in a Melbourne speech.

There has been international concern about Cambodia's slide.

On Monday, 158 parliamentarians from around the world released a letter calling for Kem Sokha to be released from pre-trial detention and the opposition party reinstated.

Among the signatories was Julian Hill, the member for Bruce in Victoria.

A similar message was sent by the International Forum of NGO Platforms, a coalition of 22,000 non-government groups worldwide.

Previously, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights raised concerns about Cambodia's "slide into dictatorship".

The United States has pulled its election funding and Sweden is reconsidering future aid.

Australia has moved in the other direction, upgrading the relationship in October to include regular senior official talks.

Given the assault on freedoms and threats of violence, photographs of Australian Ambassador Angela Corcoran clinking champagne glasses with Cambodian's Foreign Affairs Minister to seal the deal were later described as an "unfortunate juxtaposition" by a DFAT spokesman grilled by Penny Wong in Senate Estimates.

Canberra also decided to continue military-to-military links with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, despite a snub in March when the Government abruptly cancelled scheduled counter-terrorism exercises.

Australia played a key role in the UN's $2 billion peacekeeping mission during the 1990s but, 25 years on, the "democracy experiment" in Cambodia has fallen apart at what were always poorly stitched seams.