In September, the Australian government agreed on a deal to send refugees currently housed on the Pacific Island nation of Nauru to Cambodia for permanent resettlement. The agreement is a new twist in the Australian government’s efforts to deter asylum seekers arriving by boat on its northern shores. The Pacific island nation of Nauru currently hosts some 1,233 asylum seekers transferred there by Australia under a separate, earlier agreement, and they are still awaiting determination of their refugee claims.
The Cambodian agreement is important for Australia because it provides a long-term solution for refugees on Nauru that does not jeopardize Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s pledge that asylum seekers arriving by boat will not set foot on Australian soil. But the arrangement has proven as controversial as almost every other strict Australian response to asylum seekers over the past decade and a half, under both Liberal- and Labor-led governments. NGOs, church leaders, the United Nations and even the Cambodian opposition have criticized the deal. The head of the United Nations Refugee Agency, Antonio Guterres, has urged countries like Australia not to “shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere.” As legal challenges to the deal mount, they could have major consequences for how asylum seekers and refugees are treated and protected around the world.
Under the terms of the refugee deal laid out in a two-page memorandum of understanding, Cambodia agreed to resettle refugees currently being processed in Nauru in return for a commitment by Australia to fund all costs associated with resettlement and integration. Only refugees who expressly consent to resettlement will be sent to Cambodia, and those arriving will have to settle outside the capital if they wish to access integration-related services. As Australian Interior Minister Scott Morrison explained when defending the agreement, “Australia will use its expertise and experience to assist Cambodia to strengthen settlement support to refugees in Cambodia.” Since the signing of the memorandum, the Australian government has confirmed that it will send approximately $32.5 million in development aid to Cambodia over the next four years. Many believe that this is the quid pro quo for Cambodia’s participation in the deal.