Refugees to Cambodia

May 2, 2014

​The Australian government appears to have struck a deal with Cambodia to house 100 refugees in exchange for a massive increase in foreign aid. But Cambodia is far from a safe place to settle.

On January 3 this year, men from Cambodia’s security forces opened fire on striking garment workers in the nation’s capital of Phnom Penh, killing at least five unarmed people and injuring dozens of others. The workers were protesting for an increase in the country’s minimum wage for factory workers, who toil in sweatshop conditions, from US$80 to US$160 — per month.

Yesterday, the Cambodian government edged closer to a deal under which Australia’s government would send refugees to the country for resettlement. The Cambodian government has agreed in principle but is still “studying” Australia’s proposal, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison defended the plan in an interview with Fairfax Media last week:

“It’s not about whether they are poor, it’s about whether they can be safe. That’s the issue. The [refugee] convention was not designed as an economic advancement program.”

With a gross per capita income of US$880 per year, there is little doubt Cambodia is poor. In fact, it’s the second-poorest country in south-east Asia — only Myanmar is poorer. And as its desperate garment workers can attest, it is most certainly not safe. 

Millions of Cambodians live on the breadline, but Cambodia’s Prime Minister-cum-dictator Hun Sen has a string of enormous palaces around the country and is ferried around with his cronies in private aircraft. Almost 30 years after he came to power half of Cambodia’s annual budget remains foreign aid.

Since 1985, Hun Sen has gradually seized all power in the nation he now rules with an iron fist. A former cadre in the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for killing an estimated 2 million people from 1975-1979, Hun Sen is well versed in the ways of mass violence. Hun Sen fled during one of the Khmer Rouge’s regular leaderships splits, eventually returning from exile in Vietnam with the Vietnamese army to blast the Khmer Rouge out of power.

Here are just two excerpts from Human Rights Watch’s profile of Hun Sen’s Cambodia:

“Forces under Hun Sen and the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) have committed frequent and large-scale abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture, with impunity.”

“The authorities routinely detain alleged drug users, homeless people, ‘street’ children, sex workers, and perceived people with disabilities in ‘correction centers’ around the country holding at least 2000 people each year without due process, where the mainstays of ostensible ‘treatment’ are exhausting physical exercises and military-like drills. Guards and other staff whip detainees with rubber water hoses, beat them with bamboo sticks or palm fronds, shock them with electric batons, sexually abuse them, and punish them with physical exercises intended to cause intense physical pain. Detainees from some centers are forced to work on construction sites (human slavery), including in at least one instance to help build a hotel.”

Following the January garment workers’ strikes, 23 people were arrested. All but two of them were refused bail and sent to a remote prison in the Cambodian countryside. It is these 23 people, rather than the security officials who killed protesting workers, who went on trial in a Phnom Penh court this week. None of the shooters have been charged.

The Abbott government has ducked and weaved on the Cambodian solution since Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was dramatically wrong-footed in public on February 22 by her opposite number Hor Namhong on an apparently friendly visit that disguised her real purpose: to raise the refugee issue. Bishop looked stunned as Hor Namhong revealed to the media she had asked Cambodia if it would take refugees. She declined to answer any questions afterwards. Morrison followed suit on his follow-up visit on April 3.

In Kevin Rudd’s desperate last weeks as PM when Papua New Guinea agreed to take and resettle refugees, it received a healthy boost of tens of millions of dollars to the already huge cheque it receives from Australia each year. Australia is one of Cambodia’s biggest donors, in 2012-13 spending $84 million on programs to reduce infant and maternal mortality, fix up the country’s railways and improve irrigation. The rumour in Phom Penh is that Australian taxpayers will hand over $40 million in exchange for Cambodia settling 100 refugees, but aid to Cambodia has a funny way of going missing.

Since 2003 the NGO Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has funded US$351,796,515 worth of health programs in Cambodia. In November last year, after an extensive audit, the fund published a report on corruption in those programs. To cite just one example: between 2006 to 2012, at the National Centre for Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control — one of the fund’s beneficiaries — two senior officials embezzled US$410,712 from a scheme worth US$11,766,606. They disguised payments, ensuring funds were paid directly to themselves or a third party.

Most Western nations, including Australia’s main ally the United States, regularly make public complaints about the Hun Sen regime and its abuses, but Abbott and his ministers remain button-lipped.

Michael Sainsbury covered last year’s election for Foreign Policy magazine and has visited Cambodia three times since.

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