Australia Signs Deal to Outsource Asylum Seekers to Cambodia

The deal Australia and Cambodia formalised on Friday 26 September for the resettlement of one thousand or so refugees seeking Australia’s protection casts a dark shadow on Australia’s refugees policy. The Australian government hopes to resettle the 1,000+ refugees that are currently in the Australian immigration detention centre on the island of Nauru. Mandatory detention is a regular feature of the Australian Immigration policy for those who enter the country without a valid visa. No matter how hard one tries, the deal really sounds like an agreement to turn Cambodia into Australia’s dumping ground for unwanted refugees.

But why would Cambodia accept such deal?

The Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison said Australia will provide assistance to Cambodia to help strengthening settlement support for refugees capacities in the country and that it will also pay the associated costs for housing and educating refuges resettled there. More interestingly, he said $40m in aid will be given to Cambodia over the next four years for development. Morrison made clear that the money will not be given in exchange of Cambodia’s willingness to take Australia’s refugees- yet- one can imagine that “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down” and this clause cannot help but making Australia look more and more as if it was paying for a service of waste disposal. Besides, Cambodia is South East Asia’s most corrupted country, (it ranked 160th out of 177 countries surveyed by Transparency International in 2013), and the refugees who will be resettled there are likely to see very little of that money.

Image courtesy of fi d © 2010, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of fi d © 2010, some rights reserved

As recently as last January, Australia warned Cambodia at the United Nations in Geneva about its human rights abuses. Only a month later, foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Cambodia to take 1000 refugees from Australia’s care. Moreover, it seems to be irrelevant to the Australian government that Cambodia not only is a country that lacks the infrastructure to look after its very own people and is paralysed by corruption, but that it also has a bad history in dealing with asylum seekers. As Justine Drennan pointed out on Foreign Policy: ‘the country has a long history of flouting international law and taking money in exchange for returning members of persecuted groups to countries like Vietnam and North Korea that once mistreated them.’[1]

Morrison stated that no refugee on Nauru will be forced to go to Cambodia; they can either return to their country of origin or they will be resettled somewhere else other than Australia. Given that refugees are, by definition, people who fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted and are thus unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of those countries, the deal really leaves refugees in the Nauru detention centre with only one option.

This is not the first time Australia has tried to dump unwelcome refugees and asylum seekers elsewhere. Indeed, Australia has built quite a bad reputation for its refugee policy. In 2012, Australia’s Higher Court ruled out a government plan for ‘swapping’ some of Australia’s asylum seekers for some of Malaysia’s refugees.

Asylum seekers arriving by boat are not allowed to touch Australian soil; instead they are directed towards the detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manu Island where they wait for their applications to be processed. This policy was introduced last year, and even then, Australia promised Papua New Guinea a $500m aid program to help develop infrastructure. These two centres are renown for their appalling conditions. Recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the re-introduction of temporary protection visas for those asylum seekers that reached the Australian coasts before the introduction of last year’s policy. It is debatable whether this kind of visa takes asylum seekers out of the legal limbo in which they now are or whether it further traps them in it.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees condemned the deal fearing it could set a dangerous precedent. It pointed out that 87 per cent of today’s refugees are in developing countries, and that every country has to take its responsibilities. It is quite worrying that developed and wealthy countries can pay their way out of these responsibilities. Together with the bullying and bribing of poorer countries another, alas, old, issue is the one concerning the treatment of people forced, for one reason or the other, to leave their countries.

Those in favour of these draconian policies argue that they serve to disincentive asylum seekers to risk their lives through undertaking a dangerous voyage at sea. As it was noted by a Foreign Affairs Review analyst last year, these policies are only a temporary band-aid but will not work in the long run. This is not solely for Australia; the failure of curbing policies in Europe is crudely showed by the daily deaths of those attempting to reach the European coasts. Migrants and asylum seekers are generally depicted by politicians and the media as an unstoppable flow- almost a modern version of the Biblical locust invasion- that will have catastrophic consequences on the countries they seek to reach unless curbing policies are implemented. The space constraint of this article does not allow for a deep inquiry into this statement to evaluate its relative merit, but one of the crucial effects of this discourse is that migrants and asylum seekers are deprived of their humanity; their human rights are denied; and they are disposed of as commodities.

Maybe cut this part (below) and end with the above? ‘Commodities’ is an evocative note to end on I think!

Australia is one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the region, and in the world, and it is using its wealth and power to outsource an unwanted responsibility to its poor neighbours.

[1] Drennan J, “…And Stay Out! Australia Signs a Deal to Unload Refugees into Cambodia”, Foreign Policy, 26 September, 2014. Available at: