Defending borders at the cost of Refugee Protection: APRRN Statement on the Australia -Cambodia refugee deal

Defending borders at the cost of Refugee Protection

APRRN Statement on the Australia – Cambodia refugee deal [PDF version]

The news[1] that Cambodia has agreed in principle to resettle refugees who were intercepted making their way to Australia by boat raises alarm. Cambodia is one of only 2 countries in the ASEAN region which is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.  However, Cambodia is a least developed country (LDC), its economy is fragile, and it does not have any proven infrastructure in place to support new refugee arrivals in the country. Cambodia is unable to ensure adequate living standards, social and legal integration into the Cambodian society to its current refugees. In a country that is struggling to feed its own population, it would be burdensome for Cambodia to provide for those given little choice but to seek resettlement on its shores. 

While the details of the Australia- Cambodia deal are still unclear, it does seem that refugees recognized at Australia’s offshore processing centre in Nauru will be the ones resettled to Cambodia. The Cambodian government has said they will only accept those who have agreed to voluntarily resettle in Cambodia, however, if the choices given to the refugees are either resettlement in Cambodia or temporary settlement in Nauru with no clear prospect of resettlement elsewhere, there are concerns that such a choice may not be truly voluntary.

While the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) would encourage Cambodia’s commitment to increasing protection space in the region for refugees, Cambodia’s focus should be on people who have directly sought refugee protection there rather than stretching its limited resources to accommodate refugees recognized by another state which is attempting to avoid its international responsibilities.

Australia has in the recent past re-established offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The offshore processing facilities in Manus Island (PNG) and Nauru are specifically for those who reach or attempt to reach  Australian territory by boat. These processing centres, and recent immigration legislation, have rightly been denounced by human rights groups from all over the world for the suffering they inflict on highly vulnerable people and for their denial of natural justice. Despite being a prosperous and well-resourced country, Australia is now asking small impoverished nations like Nauru, PNG and Cambodia to bear the burden of supporting refugees who were seeking protection on Australian shores.

There have been recent reports that the Australian navy has not only pushed back boats from its borders but also added people from other boats before pushing them back[2]. This sort of action is reprehensible. The policy of deterrence by Australia to stop irregular maritime movements cannot be an excuse to contravene its international obligations and tarnishes the image of Australia as a country that respects human rights.

Australia has contravened its obligations under the 1951 Convention in actively preventing refugees and asylum seekers from reaching its shores by boat. The letter and spirit of the convention is called into question if signatory states begin to pick and choose their responsibilities under international conventions in order to suit their local political debates.

As a member of the international community, Australia has a responsibility to honor its commitments under both customary international law and the international treaties to which it is a party.

By focusing almost exclusively on policies of interception, detention and expulsion of people seeking asylum, Australia is seriously undermining efforts in the Asia-Pacific region to improve the protection of people who fled their countries of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Australia’s actions appear to be taken in ignorance or denial of the fact that the very low standards of protection for refugees in Asia have contributed significantly to the increase in recent years in asylum seekers seeking to enter Australia by boat.

Instead of continually seeking harsher deterrents to prevent people seeking protection from persecution, Australia must switch its focus to finding ways of working collaboratively with other states in the Asia-Pacific region to improve the region’s collective effort in refugee protection. In the face of the urgent regional need for better mechanisms to protect refugees, Australia must choose whether it wishes to play a constructive role in addressing this need with other states, UNHCR and civil society actors or whether it prefers to be known internationally as the perpetrator of increasingly harsh treatment of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network

  • Urges Australia and Cambodia to abandon the resettlement deal
  • Reiterates Australia’s international obligations to ensure that protection is provided to those who require it and who invoke Australia’s jurisdiction, regardless of their mode of travel
  • Urges the development of regional processes which are inclusive and collaborative, and which have refugee and asylum seeker protection as the central core for engagement
  • Urges Australia to engage in multilateral action to address the root causes of forced displacement combined with collective efforts to prevent and resolve protracted refugee situations which will significantly reduce the need for vulnerable people to make onward movements in search of protection;
  • Urges Cambodia to develop robust protection and welfare mechanisms for refugees and asylum seekers
  • Stands ready to collaborate with States and other actors to strengthen refugee protection throughout the region; and
  • Envisages a region in which refugees and asylum seekers
    • Enjoy legal protection under domestic and international law, including timely access to fair refugee status determination procedures;
    • Enjoy freedom from violence, coercion, exploitation, deprivation and abuse;
    • Enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights;
    • Enjoy their right to the highest attainable standard of health, enjoying access to timely, acceptable, and affordable healthcare of appropriate quality, including preventive care and mental health services;
    • Enjoy the right to work, social security and access to livelihoods, enabling them to enjoy independence, self-reliance, and to be active members of society;
    • Enjoy their right to education, with safe and relevant learning opportunities made accessible to all learners, regardless of their gender or abilities; and
    • Have safe and adequate access to food, water, sanitation, nutrition and shelter, provided in a way that promotes human dignity.



While APRRN statements are prepared in consultation with APRRN members, they do not necessarily reflect the views of all APRRN members. 


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