For months, Australia has faced criticism because of its refugee policy. Canberra is now close to striking a deal with Cambodia to set up a camp for refugees seeking to enter Australia.
"The refugee camp is actually a pit hole. The floor is littered with stones, whose sharp edges pierce through the shoes and feet of the children. Many of these refugee children have no shoes, no shade to keep them cool." That's how the former employee of the aid organization Save the Children described the conditions in the Australian refugee camp OPC3 (Offshore Processing Centre 3) on Nauru island.
Nauru, a former Australian colony with less than 10,000 inhabitants, is located in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 3,000 miles from the nearest Australian city of Cairns. Currently, more than 1,100 refugees live in a camp there. Most of them had tried to reach Australia by boats. The refugees have held several hunger strikes, attempted suicides, and even failed uprisings against the camp authorities. Now, the Australian government is planning to relocate the majority of asylum seekers - who mainly come from Iran, Vietnam and Sri Lanka - to Cambodia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government won the election last September after campaigning heavily on tough immigration policies, which have been fiercely criticized but are popular with voters. The administration has vowed to cut down on refugees and illegal immigrants, with various claimants being turned back or held at sea.
Canberra says it favors a regional solution to the issue. "We are looking for new options in the region to relocate refugees to countries that are signatory to the UN Refugee Convention," Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told "The Australian" newspaper.
Reports regarding a possible deal with Cambodia have surfaced, but details of the agreement will only be announced once the deal is signed, Morrison said.
A 'wrong signal'
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok, criticized the move. The refugee agency has been asking for more information about the initiative since Canberra announced it in February. The UNHCR normally offers solutions to countries that have signed the UN Refugee Convention of 1951.
"Unfortunately we have no details, because the UNHCR is not part of the agreement," she said. "UNHCR is very concerned about the precedents that Australia and Cambodia are setting through bilateral agreements," she told DW. Adding that the deal is "highly unusual," she said "refugees have the right to feed their families and to integrate into society."
The spokeswoman also said that Australia was sending a wrong signal at a time when many people in conflict-marred countries like Iraq, Syria and South Sudan are on the run. "The agreement undermines the global system for dealing with refugees. A group of asylum seekers is denied access to the system - in this case, the boat people."
Criticism from all sides
21 human rights organizations, including Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have criticized the proposed agreement in a joint statement.
Phil Robertson of HRW says the Australian government is trying to get rid of the refugees in a cost-effective manner. Former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh says the plan is similar to human trafficking.
The rights groups agree that Australia wants to move the refugees to camps in other countries to bypass its obligations under the Refugee Convention and the Convention on Human Rights. "Cambodia is not suitable to host these refugees because the country has limited resources and its human rights record is also bad," Richard Bennett, Asia-Pacific director of AI, told DW.
Even the Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, is critical of the project. He told the Australian radio station, ABC, that his country had enough problems of its own and that he considered the statement by Canberra that the refugees could find work in Cambodia a bad joke. "Even the local people are facing immense difficulties to find a job or open a business." Rainsy accused the Cambodian government of receiving 40 million Australian dollars (over 28 million euros) in deal. This money, Rainsy fears, will end up largely in the pockets of corrupt politicians.
Despite the criticism, there are signs that a deal between Canberra and Phnom Penh is imminent. The "Phnom Penh Post" reported in mid-August that the Australian Embassy in Cambodia had hired at least ten new employees who are mainly responsible for the resettlement plan. The Australian officials had visited some remote Cambodian islands over the last weekend (August 23-24), the newspaper claimed. Sources also claim that the islands where Australia wants to send the refugees are owned by wealthy Cambodians who are closely connected with leading members of the government in Phnom Penh.