Elaine Pearson. Australia should reconsider refugee transfers to Cambodia


The Australian government should press Cambodian authorities to implement key reforms to improve treatment of refugees in Cambodia before transferring any refugees from Nauru. 

In new Human Rights Watch interviews, asylum seekers and refugees living in Cambodia described hardships as a result of the Cambodian government’s failure to process regular nationality documents and due to poor economic conditions in the country. These include: difficulties in obtaining employment, denial of access to education, substandard access to health services, extortion and corruption by local authorities, and discrimination by officials and the public. Refugees said fear of mistreatment by the authorities kept them from speaking out or joining organizations to bring complaints.

In September 2014, Australia and Cambodia signed a Memorandum of Understanding whereby refugees will be voluntarily transferred from Nauru to Cambodia. The Australian government will fund temporary accommodation and resettlement services for the refugees for at least one year, and then on a case-by-case basis, and health insurance will be provided for five years. The Australian government also committed to provide an additional A$40 million (US$35 million) over four years in development assistance for other projects in Cambodia as part of the bilateral refugee resettlement agreement. 

“The Australian government shouldn’t make the refugees in Nauru suffer further by dumping them in a place unable to adequately resettle or reintegrate them,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia should fix its faulty refugee protection and support services frameworks before accepting any refugees from Nauru, and the Australian government should insist on that.”

In November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Cambodia, and consulted with refugee and migrant support organizations, human rights groups, and United Nations agencies. Most of these refugees and asylum seekers requested Human Rights Watch to withhold their names and nationalities for fear of retribution.

Cambodia took over issuing refugee status determinations from UNHCR in 2009, and currently hosts 63 refugees. Under Cambodia’s Sub-Decree No. 224 of 2009 on Procedures for Recognition as a Refugee or Providing Asylum Rights to Foreigners in the Kingdom of Cambodia, the government should issue residency cards and ensure refugees have the same legal rights as legal immigrants.

“Human Rights Watch has discovered that five years on, not a single refugee has ever received a Cambodian residence card, let alone citizenship,” Pearson said.

Citizenship in Cambodia requires prior possession of a residence card in order to go through the naturalization process. Instead, refugees are issued a prakas, or proclamation, by the Ministry of Interior that confirms their right to stay in Cambodia, but cannot be used for the many official purposes that require presentation of an ID card or travel document.

Refugees have not received international travel documents and generally lack other basic personal documentation, such as family books, which officially specify the membership of families with local authorities, and are necessary to live a normal life in Cambodia.

“This piece of paper [prakas] is absolutely useless,” a refugee told Human Rights Watch. “To get a job, a driver’s license, open a bank account, buy a motorbike, or even receive a wire transfer, you need to show a passport, not this piece of paper.”

Cambodia’s agreement with Australia also states that refugees will be issued with the prakas as well as refugee resident cards and ID cards in accordance with Sub-Decree No. 224. But so far, current refugees in Cambodian have been denied those documents. The agreement further obliges Cambodia to provide international travel documents, but based on the experience of implementing its own sub-decree, this seems unlikely, Human Rights Watch said.

“After five years Cambodia can’t even follow its own law on refugees, so Australia is, at best, naive to believe this deal will be any different,” Pearson said. “The Australian government only has to look at Cambodia’s poor human rights record to be wary of its commitments to protect refugees.”

Elaine Pearson is the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch. 

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