Australia-Cambodia refugee deal poses threat to minorities

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Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is deeply alarmed by the Australian government's decision to resettle refugees in Cambodia, which has a track record of deporting ethnic minorities, including Uighurs from China and Montagnards from Vietnam, back to their home countries.

On Friday, the Australian and Cambodian governments signed a new Memorandum of Understanding, which could see over 1,000 people — mostly from South Asia and the Middle East – relocated to Cambodia from detention centres in Nauru.

‘This deal risks a direct violation of the Australian government's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention to protect individuals fleeing persecution,' said Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of MRG.

‘Australia should be setting a regional standard for the protection of minorities and other vulnerable individuals, instead of shifting the responsibility to a less developed country that lacks both the capacity and the political will to adequately safeguard refugees.'

The new deal could have a devastating impact on minorities, which constitute a significant portion of asylum seekers in Australia, including Hazaras from Afghanistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma.

Very few details are currently known about the agreement — itself a source of concern — although Cambodian officials have insisted that relocation efforts will be ‘voluntary'. The Australian government announced earlier that it will offer $40 million in aid to Cambodia as part of the arrangement.

However, Cambodia has a long history of forcibly deporting refugees fleeing oppression in neighbouring countries, despite being a party to the 1951 Convention. In 2009, the government returned a group of 20 Uighur refugees, including a pregnant woman and two children, amid escalating ethnic violence in China's Xinjiang region.

Cambodia is often used as a transit point for the mostly-Muslim Uighur refugees fleeing cultural, political and religious repression in China, where they are viewed as terrorists by the government. On Wednesday, prominent human rights activist Ilham Tohti was jailed for life by a court in Xinjiang after being charged with separatism for publishing information about the Uighur situation.

The Southeast Asian country also routinely deports Montagnard (or Degar) Christians back to Vietnam, where they often face jail time and forced labour.

‘Cambodia has repeatedly proven that it is not a safe country for ethnic minorities fleeing persecution,' added Lattimer. ‘The prospect of new asylum seekers or refugees being systematically resettled there from Australia is deeply unsettling.'

Since taking office in September 2013, Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott has cracked down on asylum seekers through a controversial policy, known as Operation Sovereign Borders, that has seen boat arrivals forcibly pushed back to sea or returned to Indonesia. Australia currently redirects all new arrivals to processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where conditions have been described by the UN as unsafe and inhumane.


For more information, please contact:

Hanna Hindstrom, Asia Information Officer, MRG


T: +95 (0) 99763 01937

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