SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Australian government appeared to have delayed on Monday a planned first flight to transfer refugees held in one of its offshore detention centers to Cambodia amid reports people are shunning the voluntary program.
Australia has been criticized widely for its tough immigration policies, including sending asylum seekers to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they face long periods of detention.
In September, Cambodia agreed to resettle potentially hundreds of refugees held on Nauru in exchange for an extra A$40 million ($31.16 million) in aid from Canberra. The agreement applies only to refugees willing to go to Cambodia.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said plans for the transfer were on track.
Documents seen by Reuters said the chartered flights from Nauru to Phnom Penh were due to begin on Monday. However, Dutton said logistical issues with Cambodian officials could take a few days to sort out.
He said a number of refugees were interested in the transfer, although he acknowledged there was pressure being applied by others for them to shun the offer.
“There are some within the community at the moment trying to pressure people not to take up the offer, but that is just prolonging their period on Nauru,” Dutton told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio on Monday.
Australian media and refugee advocates have reported that acceptance of the offer had been poor.
Most of the asylum seekers on Nauru are from the Middle East and Africa and attempted to reach Australia by boat via Indonesia with the help of people smugglers.
Only a handful have agreed to go despite Australia offering incentives, including large cash payments, said Ian Rintoul, executive director of the Refugee Action Coalition.
Cambodia had no new information about the possible arrivals, said Koy Kuong, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
An April 10 document circulated among detainees painted a rosy picture of life in Cambodia, where it says domestic beer costs A$1.51 ($1) and cigarettes A$1.59 a packet.
The document promised plentiful jobs for migrants in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, as well as the rule of law, strong support networks for newly settled refugees, and the opportunity to buy businesses.
Editing by Jane Wardell and