Cambodian authorities say the latest refugee to take up the country’s resettlement offer under a controversial deal with Australia arrived in Phnom Penh on Sunday, only the sixth to do so since the deal was struck in September 2014.
The first four, who arrived in June last year from Nauru, where Australia is holding hundreds of refugees caught at sea while trying to reach its shores, have all since returned to their home countries, leaving only a Rohingya man from Burma who arrived a year ago.
Tan Sovichea, who runs the refugee department at the Interior Ministry, said on Monday that the latest arrival was staying with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which Australia hired to help with the transfers.
“A refugee from Syria arrived in Cambodia on Sunday and he is now staying at the IOM office in Phnom Penh, but the two others did not come because they changed their minds,” he said.
A Cambodian delegation sent to Nauru last month met with the volunteers—the Syrian man and one each from Afghanistan and Pakistan—and had approved resettlement for all three.
“I do not know why the two other refugees changed their minds because the Australians did not tell us the reasons,” Mr. Sovichea said.
He said he had previously misidentified the Syrian man as a Sri Lankan.
It’s not the first time volunteers have backed out of the deal.
When the refugee from Burma landed here last November, he was supposed to be one of two new arrivals, but the other man had changed his mind at the last moment. That was after four other volunteers lined up by Australia had declined to even meet with Cambodian officials visiting Nauru on a prior trip.
Neither Cambodia, Australia nor the IOM have ever offered an explanation.
In signing on to the resettlement deal in 2014, Cambodia agreed to welcome an unspecified number of the hundreds of refugees being held on Nauru on a strictly voluntary basis in exchange for an additional $30.7 million in aid from Australia over the next four years.
In the months after the deal was struck, Australia began circulating a letter among the refugees on Nauru containing a number of false claims about Cambodia. The letter said Cambodians “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society” including freedom of speech and that the country faced no problems with violent crime and had “a high standard of health care.”
The claims stood in stark contrast to not only a raft of international rankings, but on some counts even to the Australian government’s own advice to nationals thinking of visiting Cambodia.
Earlier this year, the refugee from Burma told Australian media that he felt abandoned by the authorities charged with taking care of him, feared dying here and regretted making the move.
The immigration department’s Mr. Sovichea said on Monday that the man had since moved out of the IOM’s Phnom Penh office and into a rented apartment in Russei Keo district. He said the man was receiving vocational training in the hope of landing a job.
pheap@cambodiadaily.com
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