PHNOM PENH — An Australian government minister said on Thursday that only refugees who volunteer will be resettled in Cambodia as part of a new bilateral pact.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will sign the pact with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Phnom Penh on Friday to resettle refugees that Australia rejects. Morrison said Australia will support the refugees to build new lives in Cambodia.
“The arrangement is strictly voluntary,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra. “Anyone who chooses to go to Cambodia will have chosen themselves to go to Cambodia.”
The deal, which has been criticized by human rights groups, places no cap on the number of refugees that Cambodia is prepared to accept for permanent settlement, Morrison said.
“Support will be tailored to the needs of those as part of a package of measures that will go to their resettlement which is designed to make them self-reliant as quickly as possible,” Mr Morrison said.
Cambodian officials have long insisted that any resettlement must be done on a voluntary basis.
The deal has been condemned by the minor Australian Greens party which predicts refugees will be pressured to go to Cambodia.
“What is Australia offering one of the most corrupt nations on Earth to be Australia’s human dumping ground?” Greens Sen Sarah Hanson-Young asked Thursday.
The Refugee Council of Australia, an advocacy group, said in a statement Thursday that the agreement was yet another example of Australia deflecting its international obligations on to a much poorer country which lacked the capacity to provide effective protection to refugees.
On Thursday, Morrison moved to make Australia a less attractive destination for asylum seekers by introducing legislation to Parliament that would create temporary refugee visas. Instead of permanent residency, up to 30,000 refugees would be given three-year temporary protection visas.
After such visas expire, refugees could be sent back to their homelands if conditions had improved.
Both Cambodian and Australian officials have previously said they were discussing the possibility of resettling some of the more than 1,100 people housed in a camp on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. Australia pays Nauru to house the asylum seekers, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, and has a similar deal with Papua New Guinea. Human rights groups have criticized living conditions at the camps.
Cambodia Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said details of the deal may be revealed Friday after the signing. It is widely assumed that Australia will pay Cambodia to house the asylum seekers as permanent settlers rather than in holding camps.