Australia recently signed a deal with Cambodia that could see as many as 1,000 asylum seekers who had sought refuge in Australia being resettled in Cambodia.
They plan to send the first few later this year over from the tiny island nation of Nauru, one of two locations where Australia offshores unwanted visitors. In return, Cambodia will receive about $35 million in development aid.
Cambodia's record with asylum seekers is questionable, to say the least. The country has a long history of flouting international law and returning persecuted peoples to countries like Vietnam and North Korea that once mistreated them in return for money. In 2009, for example, Cambodia sent more than 20 asylum seekers from the Uighur ethnic minority group back to China at the request of the Chinese government, which then handed them long prison sentences for their alleged involvement in deadly riots earlier that year. Shortly thereafter, China pledged Cambodia $1 billion in aid.
The asylum seekers themselves, for what it is worth, are less than thrilled about their potential new home. While officials from both governments say that any refugees who resettle in Cambodia will do so voluntarily, the deal's announcement met with only boos among detainees in Nauru. One of them called the plan a "cruel deal" and said that, "No one will go. People will refuse.... To be thrown away like rubbish, this is not fair; this is not what Australia should do."
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres pointed out that developing countries actually already host 87 percent of refugees. But a ‘Stop the Boats’ attitude has gained ground in Australia in recent years. The phrase became a rallying cry for both of Australia's major political parties in last year's election, and within days of becoming prime minister in September 2013, Tony Abbott launched Operation Sovereign Borders, a military patrol that he boasted would allow no "boat people" to make it into Australia.
To deter asylum seekers, Australia in 2012 reopened the infamous offshore detention centers on Nauru, and on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, where more than two thousand people, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East, are currently detained in unsanitary and confining living conditions. As one of the first countries to sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Australia is in theory committed to allowing in and protecting refugees. But Canberra has long taken its own road.