PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Australia and Cambodia signed an agreement Friday for asylum-seekers who are refused residency in Australia to instead be resettled in the impoverished Southeast Asian country criticized for its deteriorating human rights record.
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng signed the memorandum of understanding to resettle an unspecified number of refugees currently held at an Australian-run detention camp on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru. Most of the detainees arrived by boat from the Middle East and South Asia.
Australia has increased its efforts to deter asylum-seekers from attempting to reach Australian shores by boat, and its current government has vowed that no boat arrivals will ever be resettled in Australia.
But the efforts have concerned activists for refugees, with critics of Australia's resettlement efforts charging that Cambodia is too impoverished to handle asylum-seekers and that its poor human rights record would put them at risk.
"This is a worrying departure from international norms," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement. "International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works. I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach."
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said his country was poor and "couldn't give humanitarian support even if we wanted to."
"Most of her people do not have access to decent health care, education. Money alone will not able to fix these things for the refugees," he said in an interview by email. "I think they will be left in limbo for years."
The Australian Council for International Development, which promotes foreign aid, declared the planned transfer "unnecessarily cruel."
About 100 people demonstrated outside Australia's embassy in Cambodia before the signing, clashing briefly with police.
Neither Morrison nor Sar Kheng spoke to the media after the signing and a champagne toast at the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh.
"Australia will use its expertise and experience to assist Cambodia to strengthen settlement support provided to refugees in Cambodia," their joint statement said. "As part of this commitment, Australia will bear the direct costs of the arrangement, including initial support to refugees, and relevant capacity building for Cambodia."
Morrison told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Australia would pay Cambodia AU$40 million ($35 million) over four years, plus carry the costs of resettlement.
Australia already pays Nauru to house asylum-seekers and has a similar deal with Papua New Guinea. Human rights groups have criticized living conditions for detainees there and expressed concern over the arrangement with Cambodia.
"This deal undermines refugee protection in the region, and around the world, because it makes developed countries think they can pick and choose which refugees they take, and which ones they can offload elsewhere simply by offering development assistance," said Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International said recent human rights violations in Cambodia include a violent crackdown by security forces on striking workers and activists in January and cites forced evictions, land disputes and land grabbing affecting thousands of people.
Ou Virak said that under international law, Australia needs to provide necessary protection to refugees. "Sending them Cambodia's way is the worst and most irresponsible act Canberra could have done," he said.
In his interview with ABC, Morrison said more than 200 of the 1,200 asylum seekers on Nauru had been assessed to be genuine refugees.
The joint statement said an initial small trial group of refugees would be resettled in Cambodia, then others would be sent later. The transfers would be voluntary, and Morrison said the first group should head to Cambodia by the end of the year.
Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.