It was a dreadful omen. As Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison sat down with Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng, hapless waiters accidentally dropped trays of champagne. Glasses clanged and smashed to the floor as the pair signed off on the fate of hundreds of refugees.
It went from bad to worse as neither minister would talk about the details of the deal or accept questions from dozens of journalists, upsetting a Cambodian press corps understandably concerned about Australia’s plan to send refugees here from Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
One Cambodian security guard intervened and told journalists to stop asking questions and be quiet as the waiters regrouped and the assembled diplomats toasted the memorandum of understanding. Instead of talking to the press, one A4 sheet of paper with a commentary was handed out, with reporters forced to photograph it on their smartphones. It added little.
After seven months of talks the Australian and Cambodian governments have reached an agreement to transfer refugees “on a voluntary basis and in conformity with the refugees convention.” This was a deal that has been widely criticized by human rights groups.
Under the terms of the deal, Cambodia will only accept asylum seekers who have been classified as refugees and arrive here on a voluntary basis. There are currently 206 recognized refugees of 1,233 asylum seekers in Nauru and another 44 refugees out of 1,084 boat people on Manus Island. Cambodia currently has 70 refugees and 20 asylum seekers.
“A number of those found to be in genuine need of protection will now have the opportunity and support to re-establish their lives free of persecution,” the statement said.
It said Australia will bear the direct costs of the arrangement and “relevant capacity building” and work for its implementation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
It said a “small group of refugees” would undertake an initial trial “which will be followed by further resettlement in accordance with Cambodia’s capacity.”
No further details were provided about how many, how much, or when.
The Australian government has been sheepish about the deal ever since its inception.
It was announced at the end of a joint press conference in February by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong amid a visit by his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, who chose not to mention it.
Cambodia’s status as a least developed country and its reputation for corruption made it an unsavory destination for human rights groups who were critical of the deal even before today’s signing.
“Australia’s deal with Cambodia will send people to a country that has a terrible record for protecting refugees and is mired in serious human rights abuses,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Australia should have examined these refugee claims itself instead of diverting asylum seekers to Nauru, but at least it should take those found to be refugees instead of shipping them off to Cambodia,” she said.
“Despite Canberra’s claims, the reality is Cambodia is both unsafe and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees who will be given one-way tickets to Phnom Penh.”
But from an Australian perspective Cambodia is one of only two countries (the other is the Philippines) that is a signatory to the UN convention on refugees in the region. That means any deal with Cambodia is legal, an important point after the Australian High Court scuttled a similar deal with Malaysia and ruled it unlawful three years ago.
Details were also hammered out between Canberra and Cambodia’s foreign and interior ministries within a shroud of secrecy, prompting accusations that the conservative Australian government was doing its best to stymie public debate on the issue.
Morrison’s trip to Phnom Penh was only reluctantly confirmed by his office after the Cambodians announced he would attend the signing ceremony.
That ceremony was then timed for late on Friday, after deadlines for Australia’s major newspapers and on the eve of the Australian football grand final in Melbourne.
“They’re doing everything they can to try and bury this story. They’re obviously sensitive to negative publicity and their negotiations with Cambodia haven’t won them any fans,” said one Western analyst, who declined to be named.
Cambodia, on the other hand, has been praised in some quarters for being more open and more forthcoming – insisting refugees can only come here on a voluntary basis – as well as more welcoming of refugees who had initially placed their faith and their future in Australia.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.