With speculation Australia will send refugees to Cambodia, Dateline looks at what they could face in one of Asia's poorest nations.
Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 21:30

There's increasing speculation that Australia is about to announce a deal to send refugees from the offshore detention centres to Cambodia.

But what could they face when they arrive in one of Asia's poorest and least transparent nations?

David O'Shea speaks to refugees already living there and sees their daily reality of poverty and desperation.

With no support from the Cambodian Government, they depend on the charity of welfare organisations to survive.

And human rights workers are scathing about Cambodia's track record with refugees and thousands of its own displaced people.  

With no information so far from either government, could this Cambodian Solution lead to more questions than answers?

Dateline asked both the Cambodian and Australian Governments for their responses to this story. Read their replies in full below.

And look back at David's Cambodia For Sale, Landless! and Cambodia's Home Boys stories mentioned in this report.

Government Response

Dateline sought a response from the Cambodian Government to the claims of its poor human rights record, but received no reply before this story was broadcast.

The Australian Government's Department for Immigration and Border Protection did reply to Dateline with a statement regarding its talks with Cambodia:

"Australia has no further update on the status of our discussions with Cambodia than what was provided by the Minister after his recent visit to Phnom Penh. The Government is continuing its discussions on these issues and welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date."

Dateline also sought a response regarding the people who claim they were displaced to sub-standard housing by a railway modernisation project, which was partly funded by AusAID. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sent this statement...

"Australia has worked intensively with the Asian Development Bank and the Cambodian Government to improve outcomes for resettled families and continues to fund activities to assist families resettled by the project.  For example, the current program of support funded by Australia’s aid program helps resettled families with financial counselling and support through low interest loans and a social safety net fund, subsidies for health insurance, infrastructure repairs and employment and training opportunities."

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Rumours have been swirling for weeks that Cambodia will become the new home for possibly hundreds of refugees from Australia's offshore detention system. Then last week's announcement that Phnom Penh had agreed in principle to Australia's request had sparked a storm of criticism from human rights groups. So what sort of country will these potential new arrivals be calling home? Here's David O'Shea.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

This was the scene in Phnom Penh in January, as poorly paid garment workers demonstrated for a wage increase. They were met by live fire from the police. Four people were killed and scores injured. Violence at demonstrations is common and activists say Cambodia's human rights record is dismal.

OU VIRAK, PRESIDENT, CAMBODIAN CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: Corruption is pretty widespread. It's one of the worst in the world. We lack rural law. Police corruption is pretty widespread. You do not, you cannot turn to the government for protection. That's speaking as a Cambodian citizen. Imagine refugees.

I've been reporting the abuses here for years. In 2009, I witnessed first-hand the Cambodian Government's disregard for the human rights of its own people, as the poor and powerless were shoved aside in the rush for so-called development. And it was happening with the complicity of Cambodia's leaders. I asked the then Australian ambassador, Margaret Adamson, whether she was concerned about this violent and illegal eviction happening right outside Australia's Embassy.

MARGARET ADAMSON, AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR: Of course we have concerns about how the Cambodian Government manages the issue of land tenure. It's a long-standing issue in the country and we have concerns which we have expressed to the Cambodian Government on a regular basis.

REPORTER: This was right on the doorstep of the Australian Embassy. It must be doubly embarrassing for you at this stage?

MARGARET ADAMSON: I don't find it embarrassing. No.

Fast forward five years and Australia wants to send an as yet undisclosed number of refugees into this turbulent country.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: We're looking at stateless people, we're looking at trafficked people, labour migration and the land evictions, all of which are key issues for Cambodia to solve before it can take on the issues of refugees.

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh deals with the country's complicated problems.

WOMAN: Good morning.

Refugees and asylum seekers in desperate need know they can find help here. This morning it's an ethnic Rohingya man from Myanmar.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: Hello Abdullah. Where did you come from? How is your wife? Good.

Sister Denise Coghlan has lived in Cambodia for over two decades. When she first arrived, virtually everyone in the country was internally displaced after the murderous years of the Khmer Rouge.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: We have to get some more medicine, hu? OK.

In this tiny room, I find more Rohingya. They too depend on the Jesuit Refugee Service or JRS, for food and basic accommodation. These men have received a loan to establish a small business selling Indian-style bread on the street. Even the flour and eggs are provided by the JRS.

MAN (Translation): If the JRS wasn't here, we would all be dead. This is a very poor country, we can't speak their language. Running a business is very hard here. The locals can't survive. Even the Cambodians can't make a living, how can I?

Their carts are also provided by the JRS.

MAN 2 (Translation): Profit is only 2 or 3 dollars per day

Another Roti seller is already set up. The little they do earn is often extorted by the ever-present police.

MAN 2 (Translation): Money, money money from the police.

As the Rohingya struggle to survive, Sister Denise can't understand how possibly hundreds more refugees will fare under Australia's proposed plan.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: It's trying to shelve its moral responsibility and its legal responsibility off into a country that's very poor, has much less space than Australia has, and has not a good record in human rights, it hasn't really established its judicial reform policies, hasn't had proper guidelines for accepting people into refugee status and into citizenship.

REPORTER: Wouldn't they be better off here than behind bars in Nauru?

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: Um, well, anybody's better off than behind bars, I'd say. But it's preposterous because Australia has the ability to do it itself and why it's searching round the region for much, much, much poorer countries to dump people off on is just unfathomable to me.

Local human rights activists are also deeply concerned about the proposal.

OU VIRAK: The massive human rights violations are taking place here. I doubt that we can absorb the refugees and protect the rights of the refugees. This is my biggest concern.

And what happened behind this wall involving 22 ethnic asylum seekers fleeing China was a telling example. The group was staying here at this safe house under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Royal Cambodian Government. But the government changed its mind, apparently under pressure from China.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: They were abducted at gunpoint and from there they were flown in a VIP jet at 9:15, on the 19th December 2009 back to China.

Sister Denise was at the airport, frantically trying to stop their deportation; she knew they would face prison or worse.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: The diplomats did everything to stop that deportation but the power of China won. And then the Chinese Vice-President turned up at the diplomatic dinner the next night and said, "Thank you very much for deporting the Rohingyas. Here is $1 billion in aid." Moral bankruptcy.

If refugees are sent here, they'll see that Phnom Penh is booming and a refugee deal will see millions more flowing into the government coffers.

EANG VUTHY, EQUITABLE CAMBODIA (Translation): How many people owe money?

CROWD (Translation): We all do!

But Canberra's largess does not always trickle down to those most in need. This meeting is about a controversial railway project involving Australian aid that's displaced these families and left them in what they say is substandard housing.

WOMAN (Translation): So we are all separated, I live with just one grandchild.

With Phnom Penh locked in negotiations with Canberra over a refugee deal, human rights workers question Australia's willingness to cut deals with the Cambodian Government.

REPORTER: Are these people very aware of the Australian involvement in this?

EANG VUTHY: Yes, they understand. You can see the signs here provided by the Australian Government.

Eang Vuthy is the Executive Director of a non-government organisation called Equitable Cambodia.

EANG VUTHY: They know that the Australian government provided more than 20 million dollars to the railway project and they are facing a very, very, negative impact. We've met with AusAID many times. We call on AusAID to do more work because now people are really impoverished because of this project.

It's the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh. Ambassador Alison Burrows is overseeing the ceremony. Dateline had earlier requested an interview with her about the proposed refugee deal but it was quickly declined. A wall of silence surrounds negotiations between the two governments. After the service, I find Ambassador Burrows chatting with Sister Denise from the Jesuit Refugee Service. It's the only chance I'll get with the ambassador.

SISTER DENISE COGHLAN: You have many things on your plate.

REPORTER: Ambassador, can I ask you about the refugee deal with Cambodia?

AMBASSADOR ALISON BURROWS: No we are not. This is Anzac Day service.

I'm not the only one having trouble finding information. Human Rights Watch has also met with Ambassador Burrows.

PHIL ROBERTSON, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: I met with the Ambassador of Australia in Cambodia and it ended up being a one-sided conversation. I told her what Human Rights Watch thought. She took notes and said she would send a note back to Canberra.

Today Cambodia is inaugurating a new Immigration Department. Given the negotiations with Canberra, the timing may be no coincidence. Presiding over the ceremony is the powerful Interior Minister and Acting Prime Minister, Sar Kheng. This is the man both Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison have met. As he leaves the function, it's another small opportunity to try and find out more.

REPORTER: Can I ask you a question about the Australian proposal? Have you made a decision yet, Sir? No?

SAR KHENG, INTERIOR MINISTER (Translation): Yes, you can put it like that, but nothing has been decided.

With the minister refusing to elaborate, I try once again to breach the wall of silence.

THE FOREIGN MINISTRY: I have no idea, personally, I have no information about that.

The Foreign Ministry tells me to talk to the Interior Ministry but they don't answer my calls.

REPORTER: Hello. Hello.

I eventually find someone who is prepared to talk - a government spokesperson, Phay Siphan.

PHAY SIPHAN, GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: In terms of experience, this nation has no experience ;

REPORTER: Were you surprised to hear the Australians asking for this?

PHAY SIPHAN: Yes so surprised for that.

REPORTER: Why is that?

PHAY SIPHAN: We are a poor country we want to be neutral and we don't want to interfere with anyone - we cannot afford that.

With many Cambodians living in poverty, he said supporting refugees may cause domestic problems.

REPORTER: Because it might create jealousy, do you mean?

PHAY SIPHAN: Yeah, anything; too much pressure;I mean political pressure, stuff like that.

REPORTER: But I imagine the Australians will give you a lot of money for this, right?

PHAY SIPHAN: We want to see commitment, okay?

Cambodia already has experience helping a rich and powerful friend by taking on those it didn't want. It accepted hundreds of Khmer Americans who were forcibly returned, including this man who is now totally destitute. The government spokesperson told me the US didn't deliver on its commitment.

PHAY SIPHAN: They didn't deliver their promise at all, they dropped them from the airplane like animals.

BONG BUN: These couple of last months, they got me to the point that I don't really give a fuck. I'm not the begging type. I work and I hustle, you know.

It's a long way from Virginia to homeless in Phnom Penh. Bong Bun or B is one of the American deportees. He was born in a refugee camp in the days of the Khmer Rouge. His parents were granted asylum in America. He ended up in gangs and prison and deported back to Cambodia, a country he had never known. He gets no help from the government and the 11 years since have been tough.

BONG BUN: I had a couple friends committed suicide jumped off bridges hung themselves stuff like that.

REPORTER: The other deportees?

BONG BUN: Yes, you know

He wonders what will happen to the proposed new arrivals.

BONG BUN: They come here, where are they going to be placed at? People who are sponsors over here or a facility or something to hold them? How long are they going to be here?

REPORTER: Forever.

BONG BUN: Forever, whoa! Damn.

All B has in the way of support are his fellow deportees. Today he's off to visit one of them and do his washing there.

BONG BUN: Rain. What's up, brother?

Rain is from Kentucky. When he first arrived here, his family sent money but that's dried up.

REPORTER: You never got much support from the government here?

RAIN: No. Not that I know of.

He's been surviving on a diet of rice and soy sauce. Luckily B has some lunch but he has no money for rent and could soon be out on the streets soon.

RAIN: Something might come up. You can't lose hope. I am not the type to lose hope and shit.

MAN: You will be up in four minutes.

PHIL ROBERTSON: In four minutes. OK.

Across the border in Bangkok, Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch is doing yet another media interview.

PHIL ROBERTSON: It's not Myanmar, it's not Vietnam, but unfortunately it's a situation...

He's closely monitoring Australia's proposed refugee deal with Cambodia.

PHIL ROBERTSON: We view this as a fundamental threat to refugee protection in the region and it will become a major issue for us if it goes forward. We will fight it tooth and nail.

Robertson is going to meet a colleague to discuss another human rights incidents involving Cambodia. Once again, it's about the Uighurs, another group that's been forced out of the country at gunpoint. They're now crammed into this Thai immigration facility and face an uncertain future. Chinese embassy officials waste no time getting there to photograph them.

PHIL ROBERTSON: We have to make sure that Thailand does not send them back to China. We've gone through this in 2009. Our colleagues on the China team said they are possibly being tortured, certainly in prison for long periods of time. That's got to be our line in the sand - they cannot be sent back.

Back in Cambodia, what happened to the Uighurs has rung warning bells in relation to all refugees.

OU VIRAK: Guaranteed they will not be sent back to danger. I think that's the main issue.

REPORTER: You mean the Cambodian Government could send them back to their countries that they came from?

OU VIRAK: Definitely. For the right price the Cambodian government will probably do just about anything.

Information about the proposed deal may be lacking but it seems no amount of detail will temper the criticism directed at Australia.

OU VIRAK: As long as the sufferings of people are beyond your sight, therefore it doesn't exist. I think this is not just naive, but I think that's cruel, I think that's a failure of the Australian government but also a failure of the Australian people.

ANJALI RAO: And we sought a response from the Cambodian Government to those claims of poor human rights record but received no reply before going to air. You'll find responses from Australia's Immigration Department and the Foreign Affairs Department to claims made in that story on the website. You can leave your comments on the website as well.





Additional footage provided by Steve Sandford/Asiareports

6th May 2014