PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The first asylum seekers from a remote South Pacific detention center arrived in Cambodia on Thursday under a controversial Australian resettlement scheme that critics say amounts to dumping refugees and shirking international obligations.
The three Iranians and one Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority residing in Myanmar, are the only ones among 677 detainees on Nauru island to so far take up a resettlement offer struck between the two countries last September.
Phnom Penh will receive A$40 million ($31 million) in additional aid under the resettlement deal, which has been condemned by rights groups and opposition lawmakers.
Australia’s High Court previously thwarted an attempt to establish a similar resettlement deal with Malaysia.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia reaching its shores and intercepts boats at sea, shifting asylum seekers to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The refugees arrived mid-morning and were moved to a large, modern house with high walls on a dirt-track road in an impoverished area of Phnom Penh, where police and security staff kept guard.
Cambodia’s government, which has yet to reveal their final destination, said they would be integrated in society.
“We welcome them and wish them luck in our country, we are a country of no discrimination and we include these newcomers, to build the country together,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan.
Rights groups have condemned Australia for trying to resettle refugees to poorer nations like Cambodia, a country frequently in the spotlight for human rights abuses and with an economy less than one percent of the size of Australia’s.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Cambodia was an inappropriate partner for resettlement, having shown poor form in sending back asylum seekers from neighboring Vietnam.
“These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores that the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees,” its deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“It’s been nine months since the Australia-Cambodia deal was signed, and the situation for refugees and asylum seekers living in Cambodia has not improved at all.”
Australia has struggled to convince refugees to voluntarily resettle in Cambodia, despite offering cash incentives, and handing out brochures touting its attractiveness, like a secure environment and cheap beer and cigarettes.
Cambodian officials have had no luck either. A leaked letter from Interior Minister Sar Kheng said 11 presentations were held in Nauru and on most days, no one showed up.
Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Michael Perry