Why it’s a terrible idea for Australia to send its refugees to Cambodia

In the past year, 24,300 refugees applied for asylum in Australia. Yet as one of the most seemingly desirable places for refugees to seek asylum, it is ultimately one of the worst places for them to go. Australia may strike a deal with the Cambodian government to resettle up to 1,000 refugees in Nauru to Cambodia, with one source stating that the Australian Government will “pay almost anything” to make it happen.  Human rights organizations have criticized this approach because of the fact that Cambodia is one of the poorest Asian countries, and that it is still trying to recover from years of civil war.

But conditions in Nauru aren’t much better. Nauru is a remote island country in Micronesia that has been home — if you can call it that — to thousands of refugees who attempted to seek asylum in Australia. Why is Nauru taking Australia’s asylum seekers?

In 2001 and 2002, Middle Eastern refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries attempted to seek asylum in Australia. They were met with attitudes of fear and resentment. The Prime Minister, who was up for re-election at the time, framed the asylum seekers as potential terrorists, warning, “there is a possibility some people having links with organizations that we don’t want in this country might use the path of an asylum seeker in order to get here.” To further vilify the asylum seekers, he contended (without any supporting documents) that the refugees had thrown their children from boats into the water on their way to seeking asylum.

Viewing the refugees as undeserving, hostile, and foreign to Western attitudes about the importance of family made it easy and excusable for Australia to sign refugee-swapping agreements with nations in the remote Pacific. Under the agreement, Australia paid Nauru to take its refugees. Conditions in Nauru were, and are, desperate. According to one refugee, the camp in Nauru should not be called a camp: “We should call it a big prison. It is fenced like a zoo.” One prominent Australian lawyer called it “indistinguishable from the detention of people in Guantanamo Bay but for this difference the people being held in Guantanamo Bay are suspected of serious offenses.”

Refugees who seek asylum from their countries of origin have already been victimized. According to the 1951 UN Refugee convention, people are considered refugees if they have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Over the past 15 years, many refugees seeking asylum in Australia are re-victimized when they are condemned to the conditions of camps in Nauru. With uncertain and unstable conditions in Cambodia, which is still recovering from a civil war that killed millions of its own people, they are bound to be victimized a third time. Australia has a responsibility to the international community, and to the refugees that they promised to protect in 1951, to keep refugees safe and to preserve their freedom.


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