PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An Iranian couple who resettled in Cambodia under an expensive program funded by Australia to keep asylum-seekers from its soil returned to their homeland, Cambodian and Australian officials said Tuesday.
Gen. Tan Sovichea, head of the refugee office in Cambodia's Interior Ministry, said the couple, who arrived from a refugee camp on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru last June, departed for Iran on Feb. 12.
He said five people had resettled in Cambodia from Nauru under a four-year, 55 million Australian dollar ($41 million) program financed by Australia, which also pays for the South Pacific camp housing more than 600 refugees. Human rights activists claim conditions there are unhealthy.
"The Iranian couple told us that they decided to go back to Iran after they felt homesick," Tan Sovichea said. "We respected their rights to leave and we welcome their decision."
Last October, one of two ethnic Rohingya men resettled under the deal went home to Myanmar, leaving only an Iranian and another Rohingya in Cambodia. Tan Sovichea said they appeared to be happy with their new lives.
A statement released by a spokeswoman for Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed the Iranians' return home but declined to discuss related details.
It said the Australian government remained committed to supporting Cambodia's government in resettling refugees. "The Government holds firm on our policy that you if arrive by boat (to Australia) then you can either return to your country of origin or be resettled in a third country."
Australia refuses to accept any refugees who attempt to reach its shores by boat. It pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which has a detention center on Manus Island, to hold them instead. The deal with Cambodia, finalized in September 2014, was criticized out of concern that Cambodia was too impoverished to handle the new residents and that its poor human rights record would put them at risk.
Critics also suggested that after the volunteers were sent to Phnom Penh, the program was poorly implemented, although the International Organization for Migration and other groups in Cambodia were providing housing, jobs, transport and education in addition to initial orientation.