Category Archives: Migration policy in Cambodia

Australia-Cambodia refugee resettlement deal slammed by rights groups

Australia and Cambodia signed a $35 million deal that will see an unknown number of refugees currently housed in Australia’s offshore detention centers resettled in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed the agreement in Phnom Penh on Friday, September 26, in a four-minute-long ceremony that saw a tray of champagne flutes crash to the ground as they put pen to paper. After a brief round of applause from their respective entourages, both men ignored media questions and hurriedly left the room.

The secretive agreement, which has been under negotiation since February, has been widely condemned by rights groups and others. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres condemned the deal to resettle refugees from the Pacific island of Nauru to Cambodia, adding that he was “deeply concerned” at the precedent it set.

“This is a worrying departure from international norms. We are seeing record forced displacement globally, with 87 percent of refugees now being hosted in developing countries. It is crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere,” he said. “International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works. I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach,” Guterres added.

Protesters gathered at barricades near Australia's embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday morning to protest the signing of the deal later that day that will see refugees sent from Australia's detention centres to Cambodia(Photo: Carmichael/DW) UNHCR: ‘This is a worrying departure from international norms’

A joint statement handed to the media after Friday’s signing ceremony shed little new light on the issue beyond noting that Cambodia would decide when and how many refugees it would take, and stating that there would be an “initial trial arrangement with a small group of refugees, which will be followed by further resettlement in accordance with Cambodia’s capacity.” It reiterated that settlement would be “on a voluntary basis,” a condition Phnom Penh has insisted upon.

Earlier Morrison told Australia’s ABC network that the deal provided a regional solution to a regional problem, and met the Abbott government’s pledge that “no-one will be resettled in Australia.” He also said there was no upper limit on the number of refugees who might be sent, adding that it currently applies to people at the detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru. Around 200 of the more than 1,200 asylum seekers there have been classified as refugees.

Australia has agreed to pay an additional 40 million AUD (35 million USD) in development aid over the next four years to Cambodia, which is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries, with the money purportedly earmarked for projects such as electoral reform, rice milling and land-mine clearance. Australia will also fund the costs of the resettlement process.

But many aspects remain unknown, including how many refugees will come, where they will be housed, whether they will be allowed to work, and how they will access services in a country where provision of services is poor and government-sanctioned corruption is rife.


The deal has proved highly controversial in Cambodia and abroad. In Phnom Penh on Friday morning, around 100 protestors petitioned the Australian embassy to scrap the agreement, saying Cambodia is too poor to help others.

Speaking to reporters at the demonstration, opposition chief whip Son Chhay condemned the secrecy that surrounded the drafting process, and warned against using Cambodia “as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees” by using money to buy off “a corrupt government.”

“We believe that this deal not just violates the Refugee Convention, but it [allows] some countries who have money [to be] able to buy off their responsibility towards refugees,” he said. “And [that] could create a bad habit for many countries to follow.”

Protester Son Chum Chuon said he was against the agreement because Cambodia lacks the capacity to handle the refugees and needs to sort out the entrenched problems facing its own people before it can assist others.

“The human rights system [and] the democracy system in Cambodia [are] still poor. That is the reason that some demonstrators want to gather in front of the Australian embassy today,” he said. “In future, if Cambodia [is] stable in democracy, stable in human rights, I am happy to see all those refugees. But now [I'm] not.”

Top secret

The deal has been on the cards since February when the visiting Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Cambodia to take in refugees. Both countries subsequently maintained a near-uniform silence on the proposal until Wednesday when Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Morrison would visit Phnom Penh to sign.

In the face of withering criticism, the Abbott government, which was elected in part on the promise that it would not allow more boats carrying asylum seekers to land in Australia, says it wants a regional solution to the issue of asylum seekers, and holds that many of those trying to reach its shores are economic migrants.

News of the signing has caused a storm of protest over the past two days. Opposition politicians in both countries have joined rights organizations, church groups and legal experts in condemnation. Alastair Nicholson, the former chief justice of Australia’s Family Court, described the deal as “inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal,” and said it raised serious concerns for the welfare of refugees and their children.

Survivors rest in a village center in Cidaun, West Java prorince on July 24, 2013(Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images) Asylum seekers face threats in their home country

Nicholson, who was speaking on behalf of an alliance of organizations including Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia, and Save the Children, said Cambodia’s welfare sector was already struggling.

“It is inappropriate because Cambodia has no capacity within its social sector to take an influx of refugees,” he said. “Immoral, because these vulnerable people are Australia’s responsibility and, while we await the detail, it appears illegal in contravening Australia’s humanitarian and refugee obligations to vulnerable children and families.”

Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, already relies significantly on international donors to fund its social and welfare programmes.

“When you choose to place refugee children in the care of a country already dependent on the international donor community for supporting its own children, you make a clear choice to put refugee children and their families at serious risk,” Nicholson warned.

‘Unsafe and ill-equipped’

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch warned that Cambodia’s poor record on refugees and on human rights meant Australia was failing to meet its commitment that it would send people to a “safe third country.”

“Australia’s deal with Cambodia will send people to a country that has a terrible record for protecting refugees and is mired in serious human rights abuses,” said HRW’s Australia director Elaine Pearson. “Despite Canberra’s claims, the reality is Cambodia is both unsafe and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees who will be given one-way tickets to Phnom Penh.”

Cambodia has a poor record when it comes to asylum seekers. In 2009, for example, the country sent a group of 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China (where HRW said they were jailed). Within days it had received a billion-dollar package of grants and loans from Beijing.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan, Friday’s deal meant Australia’s international responsibilities towards refugees “are in question,” adding that people “fleeing conflict and persecution deserve compassion and help.”

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott speaks to media at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices during a joint press conference on February 7, 2014 in Sydney, Australia(Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images) Since coming to power last year, PM Abbott has tightened Australia’s asylum policy

“UNHCR has always advocated that asylum-seekers should be processed and benefit from protection in the territory of the country where they arrive or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them,” she said. “They should not be transferred to another country for asylum processing, and if recognized as refugees, relocated to yet another country for permanent settlement.”

Services lacking

Much of Cambodia’s infrastructure and social services remain in disarray after the destruction of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule, civil war, and underinvestment by the government. Mental health services, for instance, are practically non-existent outside Phnom Penh. In addition, there are few jobs, and education and healthcare are poor.

Sister Denise Coghlan heads the Cambodian office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has operated here since 1990. Although Cambodia’s willingness to take in refugees was “a good thing,” she said the lack of mental health services is only one issue they will face.

“[Cambodia's] capacity to accept people who have been severely traumatized both by the situation in their own country and by their treatment by the Australian government – first on places like Christmas Island and then Nauru – these people have now been left in a very traumatized and psychologically weak situation,” she said. “The capacity of the mental health facilities in Cambodia to really cope with this kind of situation is pretty weak.”

By: Robert Carmichael, Deutsche Welle

We were scammed: workers

Pressure is building against a recruitment firm in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, as nearly 100 workers from different provinces travelled to the company’s offices yesterday to demand the recruiter pay back fees for jobs in Thailand that never materialised.

Tan Naven, chief of Teuk Thla commune, where the Koun Khmer Training Center is located, said the aggrieved workers came straight from the border with Thailand carrying only their luggage.

“Local authorities went to intervene to make the company find a solution for the workers,” said Navin, who claimed that the company has been in his commune for nearly a year, and that it is licensed with the Ministry of Labour.

Reports of problems with the centre began last week, when five workers repatriated from Thailand said they had relied on Koun Khmer’s services only to be rebuffed after crossing the border and sent back to Cambodia. Others were from a firm called R&T Co.

Although they allegedly paid between $300 and $400 each to the recruiters, the workers were told by Thai authorities that their visas were bogus. This larger group made similar claims.

Kheng Chan, a 30-year-old from Kampong Speu province, said he travelled to Thailand via the centre on August 18. When Chan crossed the border, he met 187 Cambodian workers who were stranded there without jobs – all from Koun Khmer. They were sent back on August 25, and made their way to the city.

“We came from different provinces to arrive in Phnom Penh,” he said.

Monitoring NGOs have claimed that unclear labour policies have translated into abuse and exploitation, but Koun Khmer said it is not in that business.

A representative of the company who declined to be named said it is negotiating with the workers and offering to pay for another round of travel, while guaranteeing employment this time. He claimed the original documents were legit.

“We cannot pay them back,” he said.

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached yesterday.

By: Sen David, The Phnom Penh Post

Migrants Skipping Gov’t Plan for Thai Alternative

The number of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand has risen to 190,000 thanks to the new one-stop service centers set up across the border, Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor said Wednesday.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor said about 190,000 migrant workers—some with a full complement of legal documents, others with partial paperwork and others with none—were in Thailand taking advantage of the centers.

“In general, they went to show up at the one-stop-service offices set up in Thai territory,” he said.

The Thai junta set up the centers along its border with Cambodia after some 250,000 mostly illegal Cambodian migrant workers fled the country for fear of arrests and violence at the hands of the new Thai military government.

Illegal migrant workers, as long as they have identification cards, can use the centers to get 60-day passes that let them stay in Thailand while they prepare the documentation they need to stay longer.

“They have 60 days to complete other documents to make them legal,” Mr. Suor said. “If they want to work in Thailand, they first must be patient and understand some legal procedures.”

The Thai option has attracted far more migrant workers than the system set up by the Cambodian government to send workers back to Thailand legally.

To help workers return to Thailand, the government in June reduced the price of passports for migrant laborers from $124 to $4.

But to qualify, workers must provide proof of employment from a Thai employer or a recruitment agency and then obtain certification from the Labor Ministry before applying for the subsidized passport.

As of last week, just 500 applications had reached the passport department.

Sok Phal, director of the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration, estimated about 100,000 migrant workers have returned to Thailand in the past two months. However, he could not specify whether the workers were returning with or without proper paperwork.

By: Hul Reaksmey, The Cambodia Daily

Cambodians start returning to Thailand after exodus

PHNOM PENH: Nearly 10,000 Cambodians have returned to jobs in Thailand after fleeing en masse last month, officials said on Tuesday, as the two countries agreed to make it easier for migrants to obtain work permits.

The exodus of more than 250,000 labourers fearful of a crackdown on undocumented workers under Thailand´s new junta has raised concerns about the impact on the kingdom´s migrant-dependent economy.

At a meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and visiting Thai foreign ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow agreed to help “migrants to work legally” in Thailand.

“Cambodia has asked Thailand to issue visas for more than 10,000 migrants, most of whom have now returned to work there,” said Hor Namhong.Cambodian labourers help keep major Thai industries from seafood to construction afloat, but often lack official work permits.

A junta warning last month of arrest and deportation for those working illegally had prompted, by some estimates, the entire undocumented Cambodian population to flee Thailand.

Sihasak said it would now only take one day for Cambodian migrants to obtain a Thai visa following the establishment of worker registration centres along the Cambodian-Thai border.

In a parallel move to ease the process, Phnom Penh said last week that it would now cost only $49 for Cambodians to buy a passport, visa and other working documents to enter Thailand.

Border officials at the Cambodian town of Poipet, the main crossing between the two countries, said on Tuesday that around 1,000 workers had crossed back into Thailand every day since the weekend.

Thailand has almost no unemployment and depends upon neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to fill manual labour vacancies.

Despite insisting there was no crackdown against Cambodian migrants, the junta was unable to stem the flow of workers across the border, with Thai businesses reporting feeling the pinch of a shrinking workforce within days of their flight.

On Tuesday Sihasak also stressed the importance Thailand placed upon its foreign labourers.

“Thailand needs to restore order and has noted that migrants have brought huge benefits to the Thai nation and helped boost its economy,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile Hor Namhong urged Thailand to release 14 Cambodians who were arrested last month for using illegal work documents.

Rumours of the shootings, abuse and arrests of migrants by Thai authorities were among the factors believed to have triggered the mass departures.Some Cambodian officials claimed workers were rounded up from construction sites in Thailand and sent back to Cambodia in trucks.

But Thailand has strongly denied forcibly expelling migrants and has dismissed reports of killings as “groundless”.

The coup in Thailand on May 22 followed years of political divisions between a military-backed royalist establishment and supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

By: The News International

Passport cost cut after crisis

After the rush of Cambodian migrant workers swelling over the border appeared to finally be subsiding last week, officials said the number started to spike again yesterday, attributing the rise to the announcement of $4 passports.

On Friday, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a subdecree that will see the normal fee of $124 for passports reduced to just $4 for students and migrant workers.

The same day, the number of workers crossing back into Cambodia via the Poipet International Checkpoint declined to 2,421 – towards the lower end of the scale since the mass exodus of workers fleeing Thailand began two weeks ago, but still vastly higher than the 100-person norm before the crisis.

But on Saturday and Sunday, an increasing number of migrants poured into the small checkpoint again.

“I think they heard about the passport prakas,” Banteay Meanchey governor Korsum Saroeurt said. “Many people are saying that they want to come back, get their passport and visa, and return to their jobs in Thailand.”

More than 220,000 mostly undocumented Cambodian workers have come back from Thailand so far, most fleeing fears of an imminent junta-led crackdown. They left behind jobs mainly in construction and agriculture that paid twice as much as in Cambodia.

“Cheaper passports are good but won’t end the problems. The workers will still be exploited,” said Kem Ley, an independent political analyst. “[The government] reduced the cost of the passport, but they didn’t raise the wages of the civil servants responsible for processing the passport or patrolling the border.”

Last week, passport troubles led to 13 migrant workers who were trying to come back to Cambodia going to prison in Thailand instead.

“They were cheated by their ringleader,” said Moeung Mony, an official at the Cambodian-Thai border relations office in Poipet. He added that the workers were not aware that their visas were fake.

The workers are in detention in Thailand awaiting legal assistance from Cambodia, according to Neth Sary, Cambodian consul general in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province.

On Friday, NGOs ADHOC and Human Rights Watch both urged the junta to improve treatment of migrant workers.

By: Cheang Sokha and Laignee Barron, Phnom Penh Post
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