COLOMBO (Reuters) - Australia wants to transfer a small group of refugees from one of its offshore detention centers to Cambodia shortly and encourage other asylum seekers to take the same route themselves, its immigration minister said on Wednesday.
Canberra has been widely criticized for a tough immigration policy under which asylum seekers have been sent to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they face long periods of detention.
“We are very keen to get a small group to Cambodia which I have to say will happen very shortly,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told reporters after talks in Colombo with top Sri Lankan government and navy officials.
“Through that small group we will demonstrate that Cambodia will provide an opportunity for a fresh start for these people and their families. We believe that will send a clear message to the remaining people on Nauru that Cambodia is an appropriate option to consider to start a new life.”
Australia has turned back boatloads of illegal Sri Lankan migrants while dispatching some would-be asylum seekers to offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Last year, Conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and then-Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa struck a deal allowing Australian naval ships to send asylum seekers intercepted at sea directly back to Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa was unexpectedly defeated by President Maithripala Sirisena in a Jan. 8 election.
While Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, rights groups say minority Tamils seek asylum abroad to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. They say some of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group who criticize the government are also at risk.
The European Union is dealing with surging numbers of migrants from conflict-ridden Africa and the Middle East who pay exorbitant sums to human traffickers to reach the EU on overloaded boats crossing the Mediterranean almost daily.
More than 1,800 of the migrants are believed to have died in accidents at sea so far this year and EU leaders agreed to triple funding for a sea patrol mission, but remain divided over what to do ultimately with rescued migrants.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in February that Abbott’s government had agreed not to criticize Colombo’s alleged human rights abuses in order to secure cooperation in stopping asylum-seeker boats headed to Australia under the previous Rajapaksa government.
Dutton declined to comment on Wickremesinghe’s remark but stressed that he was “warmly” welcomed by the Sri Lankan premier on Wednesday.
Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Mark Heinrich