Cambodia, Australia sign controversial refugee deal

PHNOM PENH - Phnom Penh and Canberra signed an agreement Friday for the resettlement of Australia-bound refugees in Cambodia, a deal the UN criticised as a "worrying departure from international norms".

Under its hardline immigration policy Australia already sends asylum-seekers arriving by boat to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the remote Pacific state of Nauru for processing and resettlement.

In this latest deal, Australia will pay Cambodia Aus$40 million (S$45 million) to permanently resettle those granted refugee status in Nauru who agree to move to the Southeast Asian nation, one of the poorest in the region.

"The number and timing of refugee settlement will be determined by Cambodia," the countries said in a joint statement after Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng signed a memorandum of understanding in Phnom Penh.

The resettlement would begin with a trial of a small group of refugees, it added.

Cambodian authorities declined to provide further details, but earlier Morrison told Australian national radio that there were no caps on how many refugees might be sent, with transfers likely to start later in the year.

Australia would give Phnom Penh Aus$40 million over four years to "support various overseas development aid projects" in return for taking the refugees, he said.

Rights groups have slammed the move, claiming Canberra was violating its international obligations.

"This is a worrying departure from international norms... It's crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, urging Australia to "reconsider its approach".

Protest outside Australian embassy

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. They are resettled in those countries if their refugee claims are approved.

Morrison earlier defended the Cambodian relocation policy, saying 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 said.

Before the official signing nearly 100 people protested against the deal outside the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh, some carrying banners saying: "Cambodia is poor and can't help refugees from Australia".

"Why is the government taking in refugees from Australia?" said Sar Sorn, 57, who has also been campaigning against alleged land-grabs by the Cambodian state.

"It is very unjust for land (grab) victims across the country who have no land and no jobs." Around 20 per cent of the Cambodian population - or 2.8 million people - live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

Australia's move to relocate refugees there is its latest immigration policy to come under fire, having already earned strong criticism for the offshore processing of asylum-seekers and turning back boats destined for its shores.

Amnesty International on Friday called the deal "a new low in Australia's deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers".

"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.