By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia will resettle potentially hundreds of refugees intercepted trying to reach Australia in exchange for $35 million in aid, forging ahead on Friday with an opaque deal widely condemned as a threat to asylum seekers' safety.
Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison dismissed criticism that Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest countries, was an unsuitable partner to take in refugees given its lack of humanitarian capacity and history of human rights abuses and corruption.
"Cambodia is so keen to join that family of countries that can provide genuine resettlement, I think this is a very serious step forward," Morrison said in an interview in Phnom Penh, where the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the resettlement plan.
"They will have an opportunity of a life here ... free of the persecution that made them flee their home countries."
Few details of the plan have been released, but it would initially apply to asylum seekers being processed on Australia's offshore detention center on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru. It has a similar facility in Papua New Guinea under a policy criticized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
International rights groups and organizations from both countries condemned the deal, saying Cambodia was incapable of providing proper care for asylum seekers, who could face the same kind of oppression they were running from.
"The reality is Cambodia is both unsafe and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees," said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee voiced frustration at the secrecy of the deal, calling it "cynical" and that refugees who had already seen persecution would "face further uncertainty and hardship".
The London-based rights group Amnesty International called the agreement a "new low in Australia's deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers", made worse by its criticism of Cambodia during a U.N. human rights hearing in January.
Morrison earlier told the Australian Broadcasting Corp that the arrangement was in line with his country's policy that no one would be resettled in Australia.
Its conservative government came to power last year partly because of a tough stand on asylum seekers arriving from Indonesia with Prime Minister Tony Abbott promising to "stop the boats".
Cambodia itself saw a huge exodus of refugees fleeing war and starvation in the 1970s and 1980s. It has been widely criticized by governments and activists over its failure to address a litany of problems, from forced evictions and curbs on free speech to aggressive crackdowns on labor strikes and politicians' use of nationalism to garner support.
Given the secrecy of the deal, it is too soon to gauge the reaction of Cambodians. But some demonstrated outside the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday to oppose the plan, among them opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, an Australian citizen.
"We don't want Cambodia to become a trash bin for unwanted refugees," he said. "You cannot use money to impose on the corrupt government in this country to accept unwanted refugees."
UNHCR called the plan a "worrying departure from international norms" and urged Australia to reconsider.
"It's crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere," it said in a statement.
Morrison said the timeframe and details on the numbers of refugees and where they would be resettled had yet to be worked out, as were specifics on provision of healthcare, language training and insurance.
"The focus over the next few months is putting together the practical arrangement," he told Reuters. "I want to stress this is a volunteer arrangement, this is the arrangement that people will choose to come and make a life here in Cambodia."
The number of those sent under the program would not be capped, Morrison said earlier, and 200 people had been identified as refugees. Australia will provide an additional A$40 million in development aid as part of the refugee plan.
About 16,000 asylum seekers came to Australia on 220 boats in the first seven months of 2013, but the government says there has been just one "illegal" boat arrival since December. Hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned in recent years.
Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator from the Australian Greens party, said the Cambodia plan was "inhumane and dangerous".
"The minister has these vulnerable people over a barrel. He talks about this being voluntary. Well, it's like the school bully asking whether you want a punch in the face or a kick in the guts."
(Writing by Martin Petty and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)