South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in the Daily Star on Oct. 12 by C. R. Abrar ::

Refugee protection is a core human rights issue. The fundamental right of seeking and enjoying asylum from persecution in other countries has been enshrined in Article 14(1) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principle of asylum acknowledges that when all other forms of human rights protection fail, individuals must be able to leave their country freely and seek refugee elsewhere.

Over the last several decades while notable progress in protection was made in several areas of human rights, states have generally reneged on their commitment towards protecting refugees. Since the end of the Cold War one has witnessed increased propensity to undermine the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention even among the states that were the principal architects of the international refugee regime and had ratified the instruments. As Human Rights Watch bemoaned: “Globally, there is less tolerance and more hostility towards refugees …  and countries in the developed and developing world alike are closing their doors to the refugees.” In sum, the world has become less respectful to the rights of the asylum seekers, refugees and the stateless people.

The September 2014 agreement between Australia and Cambodia on offshore refugee management is an important marker in this regard. Under this, Cambodia will accept refugees seeking asylum in Australia in return for $35 million in aid over four years, in addition to $69 million already allocated to the country. Initially, more than 200 people who have successfully claimed refugee status from the Australian authorities and are currently based in the offshore detention centre in Nauru would be brought over to Cambodia. It would be “an ongoing arrangement” with “no caps on total numbers involved,” stated Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. He insisted that “this is a voluntary arrangement and no one was forcing anyone to go anywhere.” He said: “It enables us to fulfill the policy which says that no one will be resettled in Australia.” The minister said Australia would also provide expertise on developing Cambodia’s capacity to settle refugees.

The Australian move to outsource refugee management to a third country has created widespread revulsion among a section of the Australian lawmakers as well as rights activists both at home and abroad. The plan to dispatch refugees to a country that has recent history of “civil war, genocide and occupation as well as better known for generating its waves of refugees” has been termed as shameful and unacceptable. Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the immigration spokesperson for the Greens, berated the government for signing “an open-ended deal with one of the most corrupt nations of earth.” Of particular concern to Hanson is the fate of unaccompanied refugee girls. Cambodia’s recent track record of increased incidence of rape and sexual exploitation led her to conclude that “the moment these girls step off the plane, they will be put at risk.”

Terming Cambodia as “completely unsuitable place for refugees,” Australia’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre expressed concern that the agreement “risked violating rights and endangering lives. …The reality is refugees will be forced to live a life of danger and despair on the margins.” Amnesty International accused Australia of “putting the short-term political interests of the Australian government ahead of the protection of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.” “It makes Cambodia complicit in Australia’s human rights breaches and seriously flawed offshore processing system,” Amnesty noted.

Ou Virak, Chair of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said: “How irresponsible is it for Australia? Cambodia cannot protect its own people and violates every possible right they have. Australia is moving its burden offshore, knowing that the country cannot protect the refugees.” A section of Cambodian Buddhist monks also expressed anger that Australia was burdening with refugees a poor country that is struggling to provide basic amenities to its own people. “If they are not good enough for Australia, why are they being dumped in Cambodia?” This question was raised by demonstrators at a recent rally in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh.

In order to assuage public concerns the Australian minister underscored the voluntariness of the scheme. What Mr. Morrison did not state is that those who would refuse this re-settlement offer would continue to remain in atrocious conditions in Nauru, where they are currently based. Senator Hanson-Young observed that the Abbott government was forcing refugees “to choose between cruelty in Nauru and cruelty of Cambodia.”

Australia’s practice of transferring asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island has amounted to refoulement — ‘sending them to countries where they are subjected to human rights violations.’ The practice breaches the country’s obligations under both international refugee and human rights law and standards. Following a visit to Manus Island in November 2013, Amnesty International reported that asylum seekers were subjected to deliberately harsh and humiliating conditions. Those were designed to pressure them to return to their country of origin, regardless of whether or not they were refugees. In November 2012, Amnesty found that refugees and asylum seekers in the Australia-run detention centre in Nauru “were living in cramped condition, suffered from both physical and mental ailments, and routinely had their human rights violated.”

Minister Morrison’s assertion that those who chose to go would “be afforded all the same rights under the Cambodian law and those under Refugee Convention” has further aggrieved refugee rights activists. Cambodia has a track record of flagrantly contravening provisions of international refugee convention, an instrument that it ratified. In 2009 it deported 20 ethnic Uighurs back to China although members of the group received letters of protection from the UNHCR. Those who returned faced secret trials and several were reportedly sentenced to long prison terms. It is worthwhile to note that Cambodia was awarded $1 billion in loans and grants by China within days of the return of the Uighurs. Earlier in 2002, three persons in receipt of UN protection were refouled to their countries of origin. Two sent to China were members of the Falun Gong movement and another was a dissident monk in Vietnam. The Cambodian authorities meted out the same treatment to hundreds of ethnic Montagnards minority fleeing persecution in Vietnamese authorities during 2001-2004.

The Abbott government’s latest decision has been termed as “inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal” by a consortium of organisations that included Unicef, Amnesty International and Refugee Council of Australia. Explaining the position of the consortium Alastair Nicholson, former Chief Justice of Australia’s Family Court, stated that “it is inappropriate because Cambodia has no capacity within its social sectors to take an influx of refugees; immoral because these vulnerable people are Australia’s responsibility; while we await the detail, it appears illegal in contravening Australia’s humanitarian and refugee obligation to vulnerable children and families”.

It is an irony that Australia has decided to work out this arrangement with a government that itself has criticised in the recent past. January 2014 witnessed violent crackdown on workers and activists that resulted in the death of at least four people with scores gone missing. The hypocrisy of the Australian policy is laid bare as the country only recently expressed concern about Cambodia’s human rights situation, “restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association, particularly recent disproportionate violence against protestors, including detention without trial.” In February 2014, the Australian Senate adopted a motion condemning the use of violence and excessive force against demonstrators and a repeal of a ban on demonstrators.

The latest Australian decision to outsource refugee protection will set a dangerous precedent. Refugee protection has struck a new low. At a time when the world is faced with the highest number of asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people since the Second World War such shortsighted nationalist xenophobic policies only betray the fact how insensitive the current leaders of the so-called free and liberal world has become when comes to upholding the lofty principles of human rights and humanitarianism.

The writer teaches international relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) of the University of Dhaka. He is president of Odhikar.