Cambodia has received its first group of refugees under an agreement reached with Australia to take them in permanently in return for millions in aid funds. The deal has been slammed by rights groups.
Australia's then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng signed a deal last year for Cambodia to take in the refugees
Two Iranian men, an Iranian woman and a man from the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar were met by immigration officials at Phnom Penh's airport on Thursday.
"We welcome them and we wish them luck in our country, we are a country of no discrimination and we include these newcomers, to build the country together," Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said.
The four had previously been in an Australian-run immigration detention center on the remote South Pacific island of Nauru. Out of the 677 people there, they were the only ones so far to take up the voluntary resettlement offer under the deal which was struck between Australia and Cambodia last September.
Cambodia was to receive 40 million Australian dollars (27 million euros, $31 million) in exchange for resettling people who had attempted to seek refuge in Australia. Canberra was also to pay transportation costs. The International Organization for Migration was helping the four refugees to set up new lives.
Controversial immigration policy
It's part of a wider plan championed by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to stop illegal boats packed with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey to the country. His plan involves turning boats back, sending rescued migrants to offshore immigration detention centers and making clear that anyone trying to reach Australia in that way would not be allowed to settle there, even if deemed to be genuine refugees.
Rights groups have slammed Australia for sending its refugees to much poorer nations like Cambodia – which is often in the spotlight for human rights abuses and whose economy is far smaller than Australia's.
"These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch said.
Amnesty International Australia said in a statement that Cambodia had a poor track record of protecting asylum-seekers and called on Canberra to cease its transfer program. Australia's policies have copped criticism from United Nations agencies.
While Australia's government says its immigration crackdown has been a success in preventing migrant deaths at sea, the wider region is struggling with a crisis involving thousands of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshi people being trafficked to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia or stranded at sea between those countries.
se/msh (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)