Advocates criticise Cambodia refugee agreement after couple return to Iran

Refugees are guarded by Cambodian officers as they arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport, Cambodia, 04 June 2015. Source: AAP

Refugee advocates have criticised the Australian government’s $55 million refugee resettlement agreement with Cambodia after an Iranian couple decided to return home.

Refugee advocates say a $55 million refugee resettlement agreement with Cambodia has proven to be a waste of money after three of five refugees transferred to the country from Nauru decided to go home.

The comments come after it was revealed an Iranian couple transferred to Cambodia from Nauru have left the country. There are just two refugees remaining in Cambodia after an ethnic Rohingya man returned home late last year.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton yesterday told SBS, "refugees can elect to return to their country of origin at any time, which is what an Iranian couple in Cambodia decided to do recently".

"Quite a number have been resettled to other countries, some have run away, some have returned home."

Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, told SBS the Cambodia agreement was "flawed from the beginning," but it was "now clear that the deal is massive waste of money and a complete failure".

Mr Rintoul said he had spoken with the Iranian couple after they were transferred from Nauru last year.

"It was clear at that time that they were hoping to be able to leave Cambodia to get somewhere there could be permanently secure," he said.

"They were separated from the Cambodian community and felt that the promises that had been made to them about the conditions in Cambodia had not been kept."

Mr Rintoul said the government "should recognise that the Cambodia deal is dead, and their efforts to find a poor third country has failed and such efforts will continue to fail".

But in an interview with 2SM Radio on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton denied the deal was dead and indicated more refugees could still be resettled.

"We've got a potential significant number of people who might go from Nauru to Cambodia," he said.

Services in Cambodia

Denise Coghlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, told SBS she had worked with about 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers over 26 years in Cambodia but "very, very few have remained".

"Quite a number have been resettled to other countries, some have run away, some have returned home," she said.

Ms Coghlan said the quality of life for people who were poor in Cambodia was "challenging".

"The basic socio-economic rights: a right to shelter, a right to food, a right to water, right to education, right to affordable health are pretty difficult for most people who live at the lower end of the scale, which is about 30 per cent of Cambodians at least and most of the refugees and asylum seekers," she said.

Ms Coghlan had not met the five refugees who came to Cambodia under the agreement because their settlement was handled by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Joe Lowry, Asia-Pacific Spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration told SBS he could not comment on individual cases because of the IOM's "legal obligations to confidentiality".

But he said the IOM "continues to provide a range of comprehensive settlement services, including employment, medical, psychological and language support".

Under the $55 million agreement, the Australian government committed $15 million to the IOM but Mr Lowry said the funding so far "has not amounted to $15 million given the limited number of refugees arriving from Nauru". 

"IOM cannot comment on the future of the programme as it is a the matter for the respective governments," he said.

Greens Senator Sarah-Hanson Young said the resettlement agreement was an "expensive failure" and a "blatant waste of taxpayer’s money".

"The Turnbull government’s response to the global refugee crisis is clearly not working," she said.

But a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told SBS the government "remains committed to supporting the Government of Cambodia to implement settlement arrangements in Cambodia and encourages refugees temporarily in Nauru to explore this settlement option.

"The Government holds firm on our policy that you if you arrive by boat then you can either return to your country of origin or be resettled in a third country."

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