UN Says Australia Refugee Pact With Cambodia Worrying Precedent

Australia’s pact to allow some refugees to be transferred to Cambodia sets a troubling precedent for international practices on handling asylum seekers, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The deal, signed yesterday in Phnom Penh, applies to an initial 200 refugees detained by Australia at an offshore processing center on the island nation of Nauru, in the South Pacific. Refugees will be offered the option of voluntary resettlement in Cambodia, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement yesterday.

“This is a worrying departure from international norms,” UN Commissioner Antonio Guterres said in a statement yesterday. “It’s crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere.”

Since his Liberal-National coalition won elections in September, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government has turned back boatloads of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia’s shores, often ferried by people smugglers from Indonesia. People intercepted on boats in Australian waters are now either returned to their nation of origin or detained in offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Australia will provide A$40 million ($35 million) to support development projects in Cambodia alongside the refugee pact in addition to existing aid programs, Morrison told ABC Radio on Sept. 25. The two countries will initially conduct a trial of the transfers, he said in yesterday’s statement.

’Monumental Failure’

Morrison must explain the deal to the public and address reports that some people held on Nauru have harmed themselves in response to news of the Cambodia pact, Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said in a statement today.

“By all accounts, this dirty deal is a monumental failure,” said Hanson-Young. Officials in Cambodia have committed to taking only four or five refugees, she said.

In July, Australia was criticized by the UN over the return to Sri Lanka of 41 asylum seekers after their vessel was intercepted in waters near the Cocos Islands in late June.

In a separate incident, 157 asylum seekers who were held on a customs vessel for four weeks after being intercepted at sea were ordered to be brought to Australia’s mainland ahead of a High Court challenge to the legality of their detention.

People seeking to enter Australia by boat and without visas often come from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations. Australia says its tougher policy will save A$2.5 billion in the four years through June 2018.

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