SYDNEY - Australia plans to start sending asylum-seekers to Cambodia by the end of the year and will pay the Southeast Asian nation Aus$40 million (S$45 million) to accept them, the government said Friday.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who is due to sign a controversial resettlement deal in Phnom Penh later Friday, defended the plan and said it would help fulfil the government's vow that no boatpeople would be resettled in Australia.
"This is about a regional solution. This is about providing genuine resettlement in a third country which is Cambodia, a signatory to the Refugee Convention," he told national radio.
"It enables us to fulfil on the policy which says no-one will be resettled in Australia." Rights groups have slammed the move, claiming Canberra was violating its international obligations and that Cambodia was not a safe third-country.
Morrison said there were no caps on how many refugees might be sent but only those currently housed in offshore detention on the tiny Pacific outpost of Nauru would be considered initially.
Under Canberra's immigration policy, boatpeople arriving since July 2013 have been sent to Nauru, which mostly houses women, children and families, and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
They are resettled in those countries if their refugee claims are approved.
"It should begin later in the year but we still have some more work to do on the implementation arrangements," Morrison said on when transfers would start, adding that resettlement would be voluntary and permanent.
Rights groups have condemned the proposal with the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner voicing concern about "a dangerous precedent for refugee protection around the world".
Amnesty International on Friday called it "a new low in Australia's deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers", questioning Cambodia's human rights record.
"In January the Australian government condemned Cambodia's human rights record at a UN human rights hearing, but will now relocate vulnerable refugees, possibly including children, to the country," spokesman Rupert Abbott said.
Morrison said Australia would give Phnom Penh Aus$40 million over four years to "support various overseas development aid projects" in return for taking the refugees.
"The most important thing we're giving them is our expertise. Cambodia wants to be a country that can resettle refugees properly and they're seeking our advice and expertise on how we can do that," he added.
Cambodia is recognised as one of the world's poorest and most corrupt countries but Morrison brushed off concerns, saying stringent checks would ensure the money went where it was intended.