'Cambodia deal' is not about burden-sharing, its destructive burden-shifting

The Cambodian Government has announced that our Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, is headed to Phnom Penh to sign a refugee transfer deal on Friday.

That the deal is being signed is bad news for refugees. That we heard it first from one of the least transparent and most corrupt regimes in the region is bad news for our democracy.

Cambodia is a country with its own serious challenges. Hun Sun’s Government is ranked as one of the most corrupt and least democratic in the world – 166th out of 177 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. There are widespread reports of politically motivated violence and attacks on human rights defenders and journalists. About 20 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

Our own Government is pretty familiar with the human rights situation in Cambodia having recently condemned it at the United Nations. In January, Australia’s representatives told the UN they were “concerned about restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in Cambodia” and rebuked the Hun Sen regime for its “violence against protestors and the detention without trial of some protestors”.

Cambodia has signed the Refugee Convention but has a poor record of complying with its terms. For instance, in 2009 Cambodia forcibly sent 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China. Four were reportedly condemned to execution and the rest sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. The very next day, China’s vice president arrived in Phnom Penh and signed investment deals reportedly worth $1.2 billion.

Of course, Morrison will provide assurances that Australia will work with Cambodia and that all the refugees he sends there will be able to get on with their lives in peace and security. But the deal isn’t about allowing them to move on with their lives. If that were really the goal it’d be easier, and infinitely cheaper, to resettle them here.

The motivation behind sending people to Cambodia is the same as the motivation behind detaining them in camps on Nauru and Manus, turning back boats and denying permanent visas to the 30,000 people already – deterrence.

Cambodia will be an incredibly difficult place for refugees. And that’s precisely the point.

While it now seems inevitable that the deal will go ahead, Morrison still refuses to reveal any of its terms. How many refugees will be sent to there? Will it be voluntary? Will they have legal advice before being whisked away? Will they be detained? How much will it cost the Australian taxpayer?

These are all reasonable questions. After all, in addition to the human rights of refugees, it’s our tax dollars and international reputation that’s at stake. Australians have a right to assess the financial and reputational costs before our Government signs up our behalf.

The deal also comes at a time when there are more refugees in the world now than there has been at any time since the end of WW2. The Syrian crisis alone has produced more than 3 million.

At this time of unprecedented global need, wealthy developed nations like Australia need to step up to the plate and share responsibility for refugee protection. Instead, we’re shifting it to poverty stricken countries with appalling human rights records.

Of course, Australia should absolutely be working with countries in our region to develop their capacity to process and resettle refugees. In particular, Australia should work with transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to improve their capacity to host, process and then resettle refugees. That’s what a real ‘regional solution’ would look like – one where we work multilaterally to ensure people who need protection can access it safely.

But the cart can’t come before the horse. Cambodia does not – and will not for the foreseeable future - have the capacity to meet the basic needs of refugees. So it is simply irresponsible, short-sighted and cruel to dump people there.

Doing so also takes us further from the genuine regional solution that’s needed. We can hardly lobby regional leaders to share responsibility while we continue to prowl around the region paying off poorer nations to help us shift it.

While Morrison will seek to paint the Cambodia deal as being about constructive burden-sharing, it’s really about destructive burden-shifting. The deal is bad for refugees. The secrecy surrounding it is bad for our democracy. And the shirking of responsibility at its core is bad for our region.

Daniel Webb is Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. He tweets @DanielHRLC