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Refugee Deal Between Australia And Cambodia Sparks Outrage


Desperation in the Middle East and elsewhere sent some people fleeing across borders, even across oceans. Some seek refuge in Australia, and that country finds itself in the uneasy pose of many a stable nation. It does not especially want asylum-seekers but cannot in good conscience send them back. Australia came up with a novel solution; outsource them. Send them to a third country, in this case Cambodia, which would be paid to take them in. Michael Sullivan reports on why few people are happy with this, even though Cambodia may not seem like such a bad destination.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Cambodia has come a long way since the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the chaotic period that followed, especially in the capital, Phnom Penh. There's a new Rolls-Royce dealership, a Ducati motorcycle showroom, a bucket-load of Burger Kings and KFCs and a spanking new megamall with an ice skating rink.


SULLIVAN: And a state-of-the-art, disco-themed bowling alley.


SULLIVAN: But Cambodia's still one of the poorest countries in Asia, where only the very rich can afford a trip to the mall - a place with so few jobs that hundreds of thousands try to find work in neighboring Thailand, often illegally, for as little as $2 a day. Cambodia is also one of the most corrupt countries in the region. And it's these poor people who feel it the most, often victims of local officials who steal their land and sell it to friends or foreign developers. Take these 60 families, for example, who say they're the victims of one such land grab, who squat at a temple not far from the new mall, cooking, eating and sleeping in a small place the Abbott has set aside for them. Their land, they say, near the Thai border, was taken by a local military commander and sold to Thai developers. The local governor ignored their protest, they say, so they came here to petition the prime minister for help. Accepting refugees from abroad? - no, says It Savoeun, a 56-year-old mother of five.

IT SAVOEUN: (Speaking in Khmer).

SULLIVAN: If the government can't solve our problems, she says, why would they accept new people, foreigners? What land will you give them, she asks? Let someone else take care of them.

SUON BUNSAK: They are very correct. The Cambodian government should try to solve the problem for Cambodian people first, before they receive the refugee.

SULLIVAN: That's Suon Bunsak with the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an umbrella group of 21 local NGOs in Phnom Penh. He says sending asylum-seekers to Cambodia isn't fair to them either.

BUNSAK: It is not a nice place. Australia is a rich country. They should try to deal this problem by themselves. Australia is a lot of time bigger than Cambodia. There should be enough land. There should be enough place for them to live there. I don't understand this. They just try to outsource the refugees.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling in foreign language).

SULLIVAN: On the day the agreement was signed, protesters marched on the Australian embassy to express their displeasure and frustration with the deal. And it's not just Cambodians upset. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Human Rights Watch and a slew of others have condemned it as both wrong and possibly illegal under international law. Neither country seems to care, and a few hours after the demonstration, they officially sealed the deal.


SULLIVAN: There was champagne and smiles as the cameras whirled but not a word from the Cambodian side or the Aussies for the assembled journalists, no attempt to explain the agreement.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Why aren't you saying anything?

SULLIVAN: Both sides filed out without a word. The first group of refugees - fewer than a dozen, Cambodian officials said later - are due here, in theory, around the end of the year. Officials insist they will be treated well and that no one will be forced to come. In the end, Australia gets a place to offload its would-be asylum seekers, about a thousand of them currently detained on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. And Cambodia gets an additional $40 million in aid and, presumably, a partner who'll be less critical of Cambodia and its human rights issues than it's been in the past. Perhaps most important, says Virak Ou, who heads the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Australia gets to send a warning to would-be asylum seekers.

VIRAK OU: In a very, very sick way, the Australian government is doing this, sending a very strong message that you are either going to be eaten by a crocodile or eaten by a tiger. You're either going to be placed in an island where your life is going to be pretty much like hell, or you're going to be sent to a country like Cambodia. So it's the same kind of punishment.

SULLIVAN: The refugees on the island nation of Nauru have already protested the agreement. None of them have expressed any willingness to resettle in Cambodia. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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