An agreement between Cambodia and Australia to forcibly transfer asylum seekers to the Southeast Asian country should be scrapped, Amnesty International said today.
The call comes amid media reports that Cambodia has agreed a deal “in principle” to receive refugees and asylum seekers from Australia. These may include some of those held at Australian-run detention facilities in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
“Australia should be ending its offshore processing and detention of asylum seekers, not looking to outsource its refugee responsibilities to another, much poorer country,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.
“Cambodia should be aware of the serious risks around this arrangement and must consider whether it really is ready to participate. The country has only limited capacity to process asylum seeker claims and is still struggling to respect and protect the rights of its own citizens.”
Australia’s unlawful offshore detention centres
Australia’s transfer of asylum seekers to process their claims in detention facilities in Nauru and on Manus Island has amounted to refoulement – sending them to countries where they are subjected to human rights violations. The practice violates Australia’s obligations under both international refugee and human rights law and standards.
By arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers, Papua New Guinea and Nauru are likewise violating their refugee and human rights law obligations – something that Cambodia must avoid.
Following a visit to the Australian-run detention centre on Manus Island in November 2013, Amnesty International reported that the deliberately harsh, humiliating conditions there were designed to pressure asylum seekers to return to their country of origin, regardless of whether or not they were refugees.
Violence that erupted at the centre in February 2014 resulted in the death of an Iranian asylum seeker and serious injuries to at least 62 others.
Similarly, an Amnesty International report in November 2012 found that refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian-run detention centre in Nauru were living in cramped conditions, suffered from both physical and mental ailments, and routinely had their human rights violated.
Nauru recently denied Amnesty International access to the detention facility, raising further fears about the potential for human rights violations.
“Many of the refugees and asylum seekers who could be affected by any agreement between Cambodia and Australia have already been held unlawfully in deliberately harsh, humiliating conditions in Australia’s offshore detention centres,” said Richard Bennett.
“What is really needed is for Australia to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, other governments in the Asia-Pacific region and civil society groups to develop a regional solution which genuinely protects the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, in line with international human rights and refugee law.”
Cambodia – not an obvious choice
Cambodia’s recent track record on the protection of asylum seekers is poor. In December 2009, it received almost universal condemnation when it forcibly returned a group of 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers, including a pregnant woman and two children, to the People’s Republic of China.
The proposed agreement with Australia also comes at a time when the human rights situation in Cambodia has deteriorated to the point of crisis, a situation that Australia itself has criticized.
Since a violent crackdown by security forces on striking workers and activists in January 2014 saw at least four people killed, scores injured and one boy left missing, the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly have been increasingly ignored.
Peaceful assemblies by workers, land activists, human rights defenders and opposition party supporters have been broken up or denied altogether.
“Aside from being unlawful, it is perverse and shameful for Australia to be sending asylum seekers to a country where respect for their human rights cannot be guaranteed and which Australia itself has recently condemned for failing to respect human rights,” said Richard Bennett.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians benefitted from the 1951 Refugee Convention when fleeing the Khmer Rouge and civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.
Cambodia is a signatory to the Convention and its 1967 Protocol and hosts a small number of refugees itself. The impoverished nation has taken over the processing of asylum claims in recent years, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has scaled down its presence in the country.
On 30 April 2014, just one day after Cambodia announced the asylum seeker deal with Australia, authorities erected razor wire barricades around the capital Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, the area officially designated for assemblies and protests. The barriers were put up to prevent 1 May Labour Day celebrations by unions and workers, and to stop the opposition party from holding campaign meetings for the local elections later this month.
Public Order Personnel today broke up peaceful gatherings that did take place, attacking and beating people including journalists, leaving at least five needing medical treatment for their injuries. According to the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, one Australian journalist with government-issued press identification was clubbed in the leg with a baton.
During a UN review of Cambodia’s human rights record in January 2014, Australia expressed concern about "restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, particularly recent disproportionate violence against protestors, including detention without trial."
In February 2014, the Australian Senate adopted a motion condemning the use of violence and excessive force against demonstrators, and calling for the protection and strengthening of human rights by the Cambodian government, and a repeal of a ban on demonstrations.