The champagne has long been drunk, the ink has long been dry and the cheque, presumably, has long been cashed: on Thursday, the first of Australia’s rejected asylum seekers arrived in Cambodia. Knowing they would never be given a home down under and facing the prospect of indefinite detention on the island nation of Nauru, they accepted the sales pitch of a chance at a new life. They were taken from Darwin to Phnom Penh via Kuala Lumpur on a Malaysia Airlines flight, then through the VIP terminal to the villa-style accommodation established by the UN’s International Organisation of Migration. Each will get nearly 400,000 baht, and help assimilating and finding employment. After years of discussion and nine months since an infamous press conference was sealed with a champagne toast, the controversial, multimillion-dollar deal between Australia and Cambodia had finally been realised.
Four people took up the offer. Two Iranian men, one Iranian woman and a Rohingya man from Myanmar are ensconced in UN housing, and reportedly in good spirits as they settle in. But that only four people, from 677 in detention on Nauru, were willing to take part in the 1.4 billion baht programme highlights the depths to which the current Australian government will sink in order to fulfil its mantra of stopping the boats. The Cambodia Solution, as it is known, is clearly anything but.
The Abbott government painted what The Independent called “an absurdly rosy picture of life in Cambodia” in promotional material distributed on Nauru. “It calls the country safe, diverse and democratic, with high-quality health care and almost no violent crime,” the newspaper reported. “The sheet makes no mention of poverty, corruption, human rights abuses or sky-high unemployment.”
Others have pointed out the absurdity of a regional power, the world’s 12th-largest economy, turning to a country with an appalling human rights record as a solution. Predictably, Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson has not minced words. "Australia is basically paying blood money to a much poorer, less developed state with a shoddy record of refugee protection to take people that Canberra doesn't want," he told AP. "When they get there, the refugees will find huge hurdles to integrate, jobs that are few and far between, and a resentful local population wondering why this group should get a time-limited year of Australian assistance when ordinary Cambodians do not."
The IOM’s Asia-Pacific spokesman, Joe Lowry, has defended the organisation’s involvement in the programme, which is to oversee the resettlement. “We weighed up very, very carefully what potential reputational damage could be done to [the] IOM for getting involved and providing the services against the needs of these vulnerable migrants, and we came to the conclusion that they’re better off if they want to voluntarily come to Cambodia and build lives for themselves over here, rather than languish on Nauru,” he told the Phnom Penh Post. Mr Lowry also made it clear the migrants had been through a “nightmare” and that the situation was far from ideal.
It is to be hoped the four migrants, who have been deemed to be refugees fleeing persecution, can indeed establish new lives for themselves in Cambodia, and that their families can follow suit. They have been through a terrible situation and are no doubt doing what they think is best. But this does nothing to diminish the harsh nature of Australia’s asylum seeker policy, one which has been criticised as inhumane through a succession of governments, but seems only to be getting worse.
The start of the Cambodia Solution also sends a terrible signal to Southeast Asia at a time when governments around the region are struggling to deal with a range of migration and human trafficking problems. Cambodia, to the east, has been criticised for taking Australia’s money while turning away ethnic minorities who claim they are being persecuted in Vietnam. Myanmar, to the west, refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya in Rakhine state as citizens, leading to a well-documented exodus and a series of crises in which Thailand has been involved. Suddenly Indonesia and Malaysia, for all their faults, seem like progressive and welcoming countries, having accepted Rohingya and asylum seekers from further afield quietly over the years and more publicly and dramatically in recent weeks. Thailand can be forgiven for feeling caught in the middle, but it too simple to point fingers of blame any which way. It is not for nothing that the US Trafficking in Persons Report has consistently called the country a source, transit point and destination: we are in the middle not only geographically but politically.
The region has several strongmen who have worn uniforms, but a dearth of genuine leadership. They are more interested in maintaining their power and position than helping the most vulnerable. The arrival of the first migrants under the Cambodia Solution only serves to emphasise the region’s moral vacuum on migration and human trafficking.