Cambodia and Australia: Treating Refugees as Bargaining Chips
Image Credit: REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea

Cambodia and Australia: Treating Refugees as Bargaining Chips


Last month, Cambodia forcibly returned to Vietnam more than 40 Montagnard asylum seekers, members of an historically persecuted minority in Vietnam, without a hearing on their claims for protection, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.

Although the government made half-hearted denials that it had sent them back, it nevertheless explained its rationale for violating the right not to be returned to face persecution, the most sacrosanct principle of international refugee law. Because Cambodia is “neutral,” the spokesman for the Interior Ministry said, “taking refugees from any country…is against the Cambodian constitutional law.”

This supposed constitutional prohibition seems to be quite selective, however, as Cambodia moves forward with a $35 million deal with Australia to take refugees it had diverted to Nauru.

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Cambodia is one of the few countries in the region to have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, but its top officials are evidently not familiar with its purpose. The preamble states that the problem of refugees is “humanitarian” and calls on all countries to “prevent this problem from becoming a cause of tension between states.”

The Cambodian government has demonstrated time and again, however, that its motives with respect to refugees are less humanitarian than utilitarian. Refugees are seen as bargaining chips, coins of trade in its foreign relations.

Forcibly returning Montagnards to placate the Vietnamese government is nothing new. In December 2009, before the ink was dry on the domestic regulation that would implement its obligations under the Refugee Convention, Cambodia forcibly repatriated 20 Uighur men, women and children who had just fled the worst ethnic violence in decades in China. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, had issued “persons of concern” letters on their behalf and moved them into a facility it managed jointly with the Cambodian government – to no avail. Apparently, a UNHCR document did not count nearly as much as the $1 billion trade and aid package that China’s then Vice President Xi Jinping signed with Cambodia in Phnom Penh two days after the Uighurs were deported.

Before the Montagnard asylum seekers were sent back, the Cambodian interior minister, Sar Kheng, said that any of the Montagnards “with sufficient documents and evidence” who were “found to be refugees” would be sent to a third country. And if no such resettlement partner could be found, he said Cambodia “will not accept them.” It was a clear threat of refoulement, the forced return of a refugee to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened.

What does this say about Australia?

In September 2014, Australia signed a deal with none other than Sar Kheng to make Cambodia its partner for resettling the refugees it had forcibly diverted to Nauru. Now, Cambodia, the country that Australia is paying to take refugees from Nauru, says that it is unwilling to accept refugees from Vietnam unless a third country is willing to resettle them. Rather than bother to find such a partner – or to take the trouble to consider the refugee claims of these asylum seekers – it just deported them.

Can Australia just shell out the cash and close its eyes and ears to what is going on in Cambodia? If its conduct with the boats filled with Sri Lankan asylum seekers that it interdicted last year and Parliament’s December 2014 amendments to the Migration and Maritime Powers legislation is any indication, it appears more than ready to act every bit as selectively as the Cambodians when it comes to its obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Seeking to enshrine in law its callous treatment of the 157 Sri Lankans that the Royal Australian Navy held at sea for a month last year as Australia tried unsuccessfully to push them to India, Parliament deleted most references to the Refugee Convention, preferring “a new independent, self-contained statutory framework” that explicitly allows for the removal of asylum seekers – in breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations. The amendment granted the immigration minister extraordinary power to detain on the high seas and to transfer asylum seekers to any country without judicial review.

In finding unprincipled partners for dirty deal-making, Australia and Cambodia seem well suited for each other. But as for refugee protection, this pair makes a mockery of the humanitarian spirit and purpose of the Refugee Convention and puts lives at grave risk.

Bill Frelick is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

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