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Southeast Asia Feb 6, '15

SPEAKING FREELY
Refugee deal a political gimmick
By Iffat Rahman
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have
their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
When Australia made a deal with Cambodia to resettle the asylum seekers from
South Pacific island of Nauru, I was stunned. As a person who worked with the United
Nations of High Commission for Refugees in Malaysia, the deal seemed nothing but a
shortcut to court the Australian population in order for Tony Abbott to gain
popularity.
Likewise, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the refugee
deal. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was "deeply
concerned". And just like the Cambodians who protested in front of the Australian
embassy (which also provides consular services to Canadians), asylum seekers, known
as boat people to many Australians, protested against the deal inside the detention
centers. Similarly, to many human rights activists, this deal came as a surprise.
To Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott however, these concerns have fallen onto
deaf ears. In January, in a television interview, he compared his mission to stop the
boats to a war and that the asylum seekers should go back to where they came from.
According to Refugee Council of Australia, "asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by
boat are not acting illegally. The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia and
Canada are signatories) recognizes that refugees have a lawful right to enter a
country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether
they hold valid travel or identity documents."
Unlike Canada, Australia has a long tradition of placing asylum seekers in offshore
detention centers.
Before Tony Abbott came to power, he campaigned to stop asylum seekers coming
into the country by boats. Barely a week goes by in Australia without the "boat
people" hitting the headlines. They have been criminalized for political gains by major
political parties in Australia. Thanks to this misinformation, many Australians cannot
differentiate between asylum seekers, "boat people", refugees and immigrants,
including prominent politicians.

Another fact that the Australian government tends to leave out is that while it
criminalizes the asylum seekers, generally, they come from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri
Lanka. One can understand why Afghans are running away from the Taliban. A smaller
number of boat people are from Pakistan and Iraq, where ISIS has become a big
threat.
Furthermore, the irony of the refugee deal is that the Iranian asylum seekers will
find themselves in a worse country than Iran. International Human Rights Rank
Indicator ranks Iran in a higher position than Cambodia.
Given the unemployment rate in Cambodia, there is no doubt that these people will
have a hard time finding work. Perhaps worst of all, the Cambodian government has
not created proper facilities to welcome asylum seekers nor does it have proper
integration programs.
Three years ago, under then prime minister Julia Gillard's leadership, the Australian
and Malaysian governments struck a similar deal, which would have allowed transfer
and resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers. Under the deal, Australia would
have sent 800 unprocessed asylum seekers who land on its shores to Malaysia and in
return Australia would have accepted 4,000 already United Nations-certified
refugees from Malaysia.
However, the deal was struck down by the Australia's High Court calling it unlawful
because Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status
of Refugees, nor is it a signatory to its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention).
Many human rights activists pointed out that they were surprised by that fact that
given the huge difference between the two countries in human rights standards for
asylum seekers, Australia would agree to join hands with Malaysia on the refugee
swap deal.
When asked what Cambodia would be given in return for the asylum seeker deal other
than the aid money, Scott Morrison, Minister of Immigration and Border Protection,
told the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC Radio) "the most important thing
we're giving them is our expertise. Cambodia wants to be a country that can resettle
refugees properly and they're seeking our advice and expertise on how we can do
that."
According to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in accepting the refugees, the
Australian side will be responsible for the costs, including the transport of refugees
to Cambodia, temporary shelter, food, daily clothes, language interpretation services,
health insurance within five years, and the provision of support for one year during
their integration into Cambodian communities. From this statement, it seems that

Australia is doing nothing but renting land in Cambodia to house the refugees away
from Australian borders.
The Cambodian government had been quiet on the specifics of the deal. Australia may
face problems because almost all the refugees have refused to be resettled in
Cambodia. So far, only three out of 800 refugees on Nauru have decided to meet the
Cambodian government.
Having lived in Cambodia and after working with UNHCR , this refugee deal is one of
the worst proposed ideas that I have come across. The refugees did a logical thing by
declining to meet with the Cambodian government officials.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have
their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted
for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily
meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Iffat Rahman was at University of Oxford in summer of 2014 studying international
Human Rights Law and is planning on going to Arusha to work at the United Nations
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She also worked with the UNHCR in
Malaysia.
(Copyright 2015 Iffat Rahman)