SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is struggling to convince refugees held in offshore detention to voluntarily resettle in Cambodia under a bi-lateral deal, a refugee advocate group said on Friday, despite the government insisting that the first transfers are imminent.
Australia has been criticized at home and abroad for its tough immigration policies, including sending asylum seekers to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they face long periods of detention.
In September Cambodia agreed to resettle potentially hundreds of refugees held at the Australian detention center in tiny Nauru in exchange for an extra A$40 million ($31.16 million) in aid.
The majority of asylum seekers on Nauru hail from the Middle East and Africa and attempted to reach Australia by boat with the help of people smugglers.
But Cambodia, which in the 1970s and 1980s saw a huge exodus of refugees fleeing war and starvation, is one of the world’s poorest countries and the agreement only applies to refugees willing to go voluntarily.
Despite Australia offering incentives including large cash payments, only a handful have agreed to go, said Ian Rintoul, executive director of the Refugee Action Coalition.
“They’re trying to push people to get on,” he told Reuters. “They’re pulling out the stops, there’s no doubt about that.”
A document circulated to detainees and obtained by Reuters says that flights will begin as soon as Monday and paints a rosy picture of life in Cambodia, where it says domestic beer costs A$1.51 and cigarettes a mere A$1.59 a packet.
“Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order. It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs,” it says.
“In Cambodia, there are jobs for migrants, and strong support networks for newly settled refugees, including opportunities to buy businesses.”
A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declined to comment on the timeline or how many have agreed, but did say that the first group is “anticipated to depart for Cambodia in the near future.”
“We’re still talking to them. People are working out whether they want to go or not,” the spokeswoman said. “It’s a voluntary process and people have to volunteer to do it.”
Under Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tough line on people smuggling, none of the thousands of asylum seekers held in the two countries will ever be eligible for resettlement in Australia, even if they are found to be genuine refugees.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore